The original boundaries that were established in 1800, along 9th and M Street Southeast, are still marked by a white brick wall that surrounds the Navy Yard on the north and east sides. The next year, two additional lots were purchased. The north wall of the yard was built in 1809 along with a guardhouse. After the fire of 1814, Tingey recommended that the height of the eastern wall be increased to ten feet (3 m) because of the fire and subsequent looting.
The southern boundary of the yard was formed by the Anacostia River (then called the "Eastern Branch" of the Potomac River. The west side was undeveloped marsh. The land along the Anacostia was added to by landfill over the years as it became necessary to reclaim additional land for the yard.
During the first years, the Washington Navy Yard become the navy's largest shipbuilding and shipfitting facility, with 22 vessels constructed there, ranging from small 70-foot (21 m) gunboats to the 246-foot (75 m) steam frigate Minnesota. The Constitution came to the yard in 1812 to refit and prepare for combat action.
During the War of 1812, the Washington Navy Yard was important not only as a support facility, but was a vital strategic link in the defense of the capital city. As the British marched into Washington, holding the yard became impossible. Tingey, seeing the smoke from the burning Capitol, ordered the yard burned to prevent its capture by the enemy. Tingey's own quarters (now Quarters A) and the Latrobe gate were spared from the flames.
Following the War of 1812, the Washington Navy Yard never regained its prominence as a shipbuilding facility. The waters of the Anacostia River were too shallow to accommodate larger vessels, and the yard was deemed too inaccessible to the open sea. Thus came a shift to what was to be the character of the yard for more than a century: ordnance and technology. The yard possessed one of the earliest steam engines in the United States, and was used to manufacture anchors, chain, and steam engines for vessels of war.
During the American Civil War the yard again become an integral part of the defense of Washington. Commandant Franklin Buchanan resigned his commission to join the Confederacy, leaving the yard to Commander John A. Dahlgren. President Abraham Lincoln, who held Dahlgren in the highest esteem, was a frequent visitor. The famous ironclad Monitor was repaired at the yard after her historic battle with CSS Virginia. The Lincoln assassination conspirators were brought to the yard following their capture. The body of John Wilkes Booth was examined and identified on the monitor Montauk, moored at the yard.
Following the war, the yard continued to be the scene of technological advances. In 1886, the yard was designated the manufacturing center for all ordnance in the Navy. Commander Theodore F. Jewell was Superintendent of the Naval Gun Factory from January 1893 to February 1896. Ordnance production continued as the yard manufactured armament for the Great White Fleet and the World War I navy. The naval railway guns used in France during World War I were manufactured at the yard.
By World War II, the yard was the largest naval ordnance plant in the world. The weapons designed and built there were used in every war in which the United States fought until the 1960s. At its peak, the yard consisted of 188 buildings on 126 acres (0.5 km²) of land and employed nearly 25,000 people. Small components for optical systems, and enormous battleship guns were all manufactured here. In December 1945, the yard was renamed the U.S. Naval Gun Factory. Ordnance work continued for some years after World War II until finally phased out in 1961. Three years later, on July 1, 1964, the activity was redesignated the Washington Navy Yard. The deserted factory buildings began to be converted to office use.
The Washington Navy Yard was the scene of many scientific developments. Robert Fulton conducted research and testing on his clockwork torpedo during the War of 1812. In 1822, Commodore John Rodgers built the country's first marine railway for the overhaul of large vessels. John A. Dahlgren developed his distinctive bottle-shaped cannon that became the mainstay of naval ordnance before the Civil War. In 1898, David W. Taylor developed a ship model testing basin which was used by the Navy and private shipbuilders to test the effect of water on new hull designs. The first shipboard aircraft catapult was tested in the Anacostia River in 1912, and a wind tunnel was completed at the yard in 1916. The giant gears for the Panama Canal locks were cast at the yard. Navy yard technicians applied their efforts to medical designs for prosthetic hands and molds for artificial eyes and teeth.
The Washington Navy Yard was the ceremonial gateway to the nation's capital. In 1860, the first Japanese diplomatic mission was welcomed to the United States in an impressive pageant at the yard. The body of World War I's Unknown Soldier was received here. Charles A. Lindbergh returned to the Navy Yard in 1927 after his famous transatlantic flight. In the 1930s, Britain's King George VI visited the yard during his Washington stay.
As of 2004, the Navy Yard houses a variety of activities. It serves as headquarters, Naval District Washington, and houses numerous support activities for the fleet and aviation communities. The Navy Museum welcomes visitors to displays of naval art and artifacts which trace the Navy's history from the Revolutionary War to the present day. The Naval Historical Center is housed in a complex of buildings known as the Dudley Knox Center for Naval History. Leutze Park is the scene of colorful ceremonies.