by Kelly Duffy, National Museum of the American Sailor Deputy Director
While thousands of visitors come to the National Museum of the American Sailor each year to view items from our historical artifact collection on display, our largest historic artifact is actually the museum’s home, Building 42. Architect Gordon Bunshaft of the prominent firm Skidmore, Owings, and Merrill designed the facility, which is a classic example of Mid-Century Modern (MCM) architecture. Building 42 is the only surviving World War II-era example of Bunshaft’s work. Originally named the “Hostess House,” Building 42 opened in 1942 as a place for sailors and their loved ones to meet and say their “hellos” and “goodbyes.” The building could accommodate up to 3,000 visitors at a time, making it the ideal place for sailors to be discharged after World War II. With almost 970,000 sailors attending boot camp at Great Lakes during World War II and thousands of service members out-processed at the facility after the war, thousands of boots pounded the Hostess House’s floor. As a majority of those served came through Building 42, it holds a special place in many service member’s hearts. Now a national museum, it once again serves as a gathering place for sailors and their loved ones.
In the latter part of the twentieth century, Building 42 served many functions. As its open interior was no longer needed and administrative areas were at a premium, the original architecture and aesthetic of the building was transformed to meet its new uses. With its ample available open space, the Hostess House could be anything. Its large wood beams, high ceilings, and window walls were covered for practicality. The open spaces that once held dances and familial conversations were instead transformed into offices and cubicles to meet the Navy’s growing administrative needs.
When the National Museum of the American Sailor moved into the Hostess House in 2008, Building 42 was anything but a glamourous mid-century masterpiece. As an aging wood-sided building that once saw thousands of sailors, its biggest fans now were a few raccoons and woodpeckers. Building 42 has three levels, (or decks in Navy parlance) and since 2008 all three have undergone major renovations to introduce modernized collections storage, administrative, and gallery spaces to the building. Loving dubbed the “Big Brown Building” by the museum’s staff, the seventy-seven-year-old build requires much care and attention. This work is a labor of love because of what the Hostess House represents: the past melding with the future as demonstrated each week when recent Navy bootcamp graduates converse with the museum’s volunteer corps of Navy veterans, and Building 42 once again serving as meeting place for sailors and their loved ones.
As part of its overall restoration, over the past eighteen months the Hostess House underwent renovations on its first deck to return its interior space to its 1942 appearance. We demolished interior offices and drop ceilings to expose the beautiful wood beams that hundreds of thousands of sailors and their families walked beneath over seventy-five years ago. Brought back to life, this portion of the museum officially opened on Friday, April 26, 2019. It is here in this space that the Hostess House truly returns to its original purpose as a gathering site. This rehabbed space is now open for Navy personnel to hold military ceremonies or gatherings, museum special events, and where families can meet their sailors just like they did in 1942. To learn more about museum events in this space or reserving it for a military-affiliated ceremony or meeting, visit www.history.navy.mil/nmas for more information.