At its western end, Flushing Avenue in Brooklyn veers past a strange and uneven terrain: cavernous structures the size of football fields, amorphous masses bulging with rust, roughly 300 acres jutting into a bend in the East River. For years, to most who passed it, the Brooklyn Navy Yard was a dreamscape of industrial decay, a kind of fenced-off blind spot at the city’s edge. But since 2002, when the Bloomberg administration launched a giant expansion project, the former naval yard has been quietly ticking with signs of new life.
Even now, the yard’s more than 240 businesses–a motley assemblage that includes stage builders, art handlers, metalworkers, fishmongers and designers–exist side by side with vestiges of decades of abandonment: boarded-up windows, a collapsed pier, the craters of former dry docks.
It’s an unlikely convergence of old Brooklyn and new, a story about New York’s industrial past attempting to subvert its usual bleak end, rewriting itself instead as a blueprint for something bold and new. Last year, the city opened what it called the nation’s “first multi-story green industrial facility,” an 89,000-square-foot building sporting wind turbines and solar panels, part of the $250 million funding program aimed to create what Brooklyn Navy Yard head Andrew Kimball calls “the greenest urban industrial center in America.”
Nowhere is the overlap between the site’s past and future topography more apparent than the onetime Marine Commandant’s Residence, or–because the yard’s structures are more often referred to simply by numbers–Building 92. Designed by Thomas U. Walter, the architect most famous for adding the dome to the U.S. Capitol, the three-story mansion was built in 1857. Facing in from the yard’s periphery, it stood as a kind of sentry to the industrial hub and de facto commons, a town with its own hospital, chapel, morgue and cemetery.
During its 165-year run as one of the nation’s major military facilities, the Brooklyn Navy Yard built more than 80 warships–the Maine, for instance, the sinking of which in the Havana harbor set off the Spanish-American War; Pearl Harbor’s sepulchral Arizona; the Missouri, site of the Japanese surrender signing–as well as innumerable smaller vessels. At its peak of activity, during World War II, the “Can-Do Yard,” as it was called, employed more than 70,000 people.
After the war, the area’s manufacturing fell into decline. The shipping trade’s giant new container ships required deeper harbors and newer infrastructure, giving New Jersey an edge. To a huge outcry from its workers, Defense Secretary Robert McNamara, the onetime technocratic Ford president who stood among the best and brightest behind the Vietnam War, decommissioned the site in 1966, the largest closure of any military facility in U.S. history.
“We can really point to things the way Europeans can point to 1917, and say after this the world changed,” wrote the late Bernard Malamud about Brooklyn. “For us, it was the Dodgers leaving, the folding of The Brooklyn Eagle and the closing of the Navy Yard.”
LIKE MANY OF the old Navy structures, the Commandant’s Residence fell into disuse after McNamara’s decision, its interior slowly rotting away. A nearby cluster of vine-eaten, crumbling officers’ homes known as Admiral’s Row has been slated for demolition, making way for a 55,000-square-foot ShopRite and inciting the ire of preservationists.
Spared such a fate, Building 92 is being overhauled instead as a historical center, preserving the yard’s long and wide-ranging history for display. An adjoining glass atrium designed by Beyer Blinder Belle and Workshop/apd will be built using all locally sourced and Navy Yard-fabricated materials.
With plans to open next Labor Day, Building 92 will offer a glimpse into the terrain long hidden from public view by miles of fencing, brick walls and guard booths plastered with grim warning signs. Along with the requisite interactive timelines and tidily encapsulated window displays, many of the artifacts unearthed during the yard’s expansion will also greet visitors: anchors, rusted horseshoes, old shop signs, a giant bronze eagle once perched atop the main entrance gate.
The historical center will house much of the yard’s massive archival collection, the roughly 2,200 cubic feet of rolled-up plans left behind by the Navy. The oldest document in the collection is an 1858 design for a monument honoring the sailors and Marines who died in Canton, China, at the Battle for the Barrier Forts during the Opium Wars.
More than historical curiosities, these documents form something of an archeological time warp, moving at once backward and forward through the yard’s development. Of the 300 buildings that once existed there, only 40 remain. The thousands of drawings and architectural plans chart the course of 165 years’ worth of building up and tearing down, the yard’s demolitions, scars and submerged foundations.
As new construction moves ahead, the yard’s archives have played a key role in the efforts of architects, engineers and developers–all with a stake in the site’s future as well as its past. If anything, the Brooklyn Navy Yard is a place where the past has proved a strange and mercurial incubator for what may lie ahead.