By John B. Manbeck
Special to The Brooklyn Eagle
On the foundation of the Marine Commandant’s residence, built in 1855 but empty for 75 years, a fabulous Brooklyn Navy Yard museum opened a year ago. Other miracles are scheduled there for the not too distant future.
Since three-quarters of the world’s surface is water, man learned to navigate on it before use of the wheel, steam power and jets. And because New York City is comprised of three major islands, nautical transportation assumed an early role here. In 1802, the newly created federal government understood this necessity and President John Adams ordered the purchase of a shipyard on the edge of Wallabout Bay in Vinegar Hill from John Jackson to create the New-York Naval Yard. “Can do,” replied the Navy.
Today, this base is more fondly remembered as the Brooklyn Navy Yard.
The importance of the Navy Yard — its history and its future — is wonderfully documented in the new Brooklyn Navy Yard History Museum in Building 32 at 63 Flushing Ave. and Carlton Street, which opened its doors on November 11, 2011. Free exhibits trace the history of the Navy Yard from the days of the native Lenapes to those of “Rosie The Riveter.”
Brooklyn, rich in lumber and manpower, was an apt location for building wooden warships when young America was still being threatened by Britain. After the War of 1812, the naval station continued to grow, commissioning its first vessel in 1819. The yard occupied an increasingly significant role in developing the importance of the cities of Brooklyn and New York to the new country.
In 1840, Matthew Perry, the new Commandant, introduced innovations such as the dry dock and the Naval Lyceum, an institution to promote knowledge through lectures with a library and collections. During the Civil War, the yard participated in the creation of iron-clad ships, notably The Monitor. An exhibit of an 1856 cannon represents that era. In 1889, the yard built the USS Maine whose explosion triggered the Spanish American War in 1898.
While Brooklyn, a borough after 1898, did not make significant naval history in World War I — primarily a land-based conflict — the yard more than made up for it during World War II when it produced major warships and converted liners to troop ships in record time. Over 71,000 workers followed a 24/7 schedule. The USS Arizona, which was sunk in Pearl Harbor starting the war in the Pacific and the USS Missouri, on which the peace with Japan was signed, both originated in the Brooklyn Navy Yard. The last World War II ship launched at the yard was the USS Kearsage in 1945.
The exhibits in the museum track this history with artifacts from the 18th century on with photographs, sketches, video displays and personal stories. The history unrolls in chronological order on three floors with a timeline, huge photographs and displays of naval vessels juxtaposed with personal stories of workers at the yard and notable individuals who contributed to its development. A newsreel from the World War II years contributed by the Brooklyn Historical Society traces the type of work completed at the time.
In 1965, the last ship, the USS Duluth, slid down the ways. Then, with an “Attention All Hands” announcement from the admiral, the Brooklyn Navy Yard was decommissioned in 1966 and turned over to the city. After constructing over 150 vessels, the days of the Navy Yard were over and it was doomed to be “trapped in a rust belt.”
The problem of how to use the 300 acres of waterfront real estate faced Mayor John Lindsay. The Brooklyn Eagle ran the headline: “Navy Yard Begins Biggest Expansion Since WW II.” Initially, private shipping interests operated the space but this effort failed by 1986. Then the new management of the Brooklyn Navy Yard Development Corporation (BNYDC) changed its scope to sectionalize the operation. Steiner Studios’ movie productions and a green area opened new business opportunities with the aim of working with and for the neighboring communities.
The former Brooklyn Naval Hospital (1838-1948), where E.R. Squibb opened an early laboratory, and Officers’ Row buildings posed a dilemma. Hidden behind a fence on Flushing Avenue at the western edge of the yard and overgrown with atlantis trees and weeds, the former residences and hospital languished unattended by their custodian, the National Guard. Now they have been turned over to the non-profit Navy Yard operations. Unfortunately, many are is disrepair due to neglect by the federal government. The plan is to stabilize the hospital building for reuse eventually.
A supermarket will be added to the under-served Fort Greene neighborhood. Two of the Officers’ Row buildings will be preserved for reuse as private businesses; one named the Timber Shed had been used for wood storage in the 19th century. The others will be demolished. Most of the six rusted dry docks and cranes have been converted for private use as well. The Commandant’s House, outside the current Navy Yard property, is privately owned.
Obviously, much work lies ahead but the plans for the Yard’s tenants are moving forward under the direction of Andrew Kimball. The future of the museum is rich, too. With over 200 years of history, only the surface has been touched. Much related history remains off site in the Library of Congress, The National Archives, The Smithsonian Institution and naval records. Researching this material is a challenge for archivist Daniela Romano and her assistant, Sara Fitzpatrick. In their archival storeroom lie blueprints and drawings of the original 200 buildings on the base. Among the artifacts they rescued is one of the bronze gatepost eagles, cast in 1899.
The Navy Yard buildings are filled to 90 percent capacity with 240 businesses and classrooms. Steiner Studios, the yard’s biggest tenant, is actively producing major films including “Boardwalk Empire” and the latest “Spiderman” film. The police auto pound on Sands Street is being moved and replaced by a parking lot and the main gate will be restored to its early 1900s look. Former cemetery grounds near the hospital will be transformed into a 20-acre “media campus.”
From the atrium lobby with its anchor and chain (from the USS Austin), the museum built with modular construction is a fascinating and educational experience. For additional research on site, two rooms of computers are available. The 4th floor has a cafeteria. The photographic book, "The Brooklyn Navy Yard" by John Bartelstone, is for sale at the desk and free brochures on the museum and the Navy Yard are available, too.
The building is open Wednesday through Sunday from noon until 6 p.m. and admission is free. Tours of the museum of small groups are available for a donation of $5, according to the director of visitor services, Emilie Evans. Two hour tours of the Navy Yard by bus or bicycle are also available on the weekends for $30 per passenger for the bus and $24 for each bicycle offered bi-monthly. Friday afternoon tours of the factories are starting.
The museum is accessible by a free hourly weekend shuttle or by car, bus or subway. Call 718-907-5992 or visit BLDG92.org.
©2012 John B. Manbeck