NORFOLK, Va. (WAVY) — All month-long, 10 On Your Side has highlighted the rich naval history of our area. June 28 is the 100th birthday of Naval Station Norfolk — the largest naval base in the world.
It was July 1, 1917, when the Navy broke ground on what would become Naval Operating Base, later Naval Station Norfolk. Congress set aside $1.2 million for the purchase of nearly 400 acres on Sewell’s Point.
But if you ask Norfolk’s city historian, she makes a compelling argument that the true birth of the relationship between the city and the Navy started much earlier.
“In 1794, there was an order for six wooden battleships to be built for the first United States Navy, and one of those ships, the Chesapeake, was built right here in the Gossport Navy Yard,” explained Norfolk’s historian Peggy McPhillips.
Over the years, the relationship — like all long lasting ones do — has had some bumps in the road. Post World War I, for example, McPhillips says not all residents were happy with the influx of sailors. Some parents even forbid their daughters to go south of Plume Street.
“East Main Street was just elbow-to-elbow with tattoo parlors and Honky Tonks and bars and beer joints and that sort of thing. I don’t think Norfolk really liked to see that happen,” McPhillips explained.
But the population boom brought good news for the city, too. Norfolk was going to shut down its street cars when suddenly, they were in high demand once again, as was a place for a sailor to lay his head.
“They had what they called ‘hot beds,’ where people would rent a room and one person would stay there during the day time if they worked at night, and somebody would stay there at night if they worked in the daytime,” McPhillips said.
As decades went by, the relationship flourished, as did the surrounding areas. Homes were built, city limits expanded and suburbs began to take shape.
“Especially after World War II, as so many people came in as military or civilian war workers, and they stayed in some of our suburbs,” McPhillips said.
Areas like Camellia Shores began to take off.
The relationship between the City of Norfolk and the United States Navy is one that both sides have worked tirelessly to preserve. The two are now semi-dependent on one another.
“We have naval personnel who have coached our little league teams, they go to our churches, they serve on commissions, I think they’ve enriched us in so many ways I think we aren’t even aware of.”
The City of Norfolk is always looking to retain sailors once they leave the Navy. The often highly educated, highly trained men and women, make a great addition to the city, like Elaine Luria.
“The Navy is the thread that ties so many families like ours to the region.”
Luria served 20 years in the Navy. She and her husband Robert Blondin chose to stay put after their service. They raised children in Norfolk, and the couple even opened up a local business: The Mermaid Factory. It’s a paint shop where tourists and locals can color their own city symbol to take home. Nearly 50,000 have been painted since the shop opened.
Blondin gives back, in more ways than one. He now serves on the city’s Naval Station Norfolk Centennial Commission which is working to honor the century long relationship with a massive mural tribute to the Navy on the parking garage located on Bank Street in downtown Norfolk.
“So right here on this very large building, there will be a permanent remembrance of this 100 years,” Blondin said, pointing to the garage.
The mural is not painted yet, but an artist will spend the summer teaming up with six high school volunteers to craft the piece at the basement of the Scope. A crew will then assemble it to the garage.
The relationship between the Navy and Norfolk could be tested once again as together they work to lead the fight against sea level rise. But, together, the two might be able to endure almost anything.
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