After 200 Years, Navy Yard Opens Gates to the Public

New Museum Exhibits Site’s Nautical Past, Industrial Future

Detailed ship models are displayed in the Brooklyn Navy Yard Center at Building 92 in New York, Wednesday, Nov. 2, 2011. The center, which explores the history and current uses of the Navy Yards, opens to the public on Friday, Nov. 11, 2011. (AP Photo/Seth Wenig)

By Zach Campbell

BROOKLYN NAVY YARD — Originally purchased from the Lenape in 1637, the Dutch called this land Waal Boght, or “Bend in the River.”

Later on, it was one of the nation’s largest shipbuilding centers, dry docks and, for a time, the largest open-air market in Brooklyn.

After closing as a Naval installation four-and-a-half decades ago, the Brooklyn Navy Yard has re-emerged as a home for businesses small and large, many of which work with new and emerging technologies.

Tomorrow, a museum will open here that is as much dedicated to the site’s future as to its past. Now those of us who were left to wonder what went on beyond the Navy Yard’s gates will be able to just go and see.

“For the first time since 1801 we’re opening it up to the community,” said Andrew Kimball, president and CEO of the Brooklyn Navy Yard Development Corporation. “There are so many people in the surrounding neighborhoods who have never been here.”

The streets inside the gates of this mysterious site eerily blend old and new: Hybrid cars and solar-powered streetlights sit in the shadow of an enormous decaying World War II-era machine shop that spans the length of an entire block. Next to an aging dry dock sits Steiner Studios, the largest and most high-tech film production complex outside Hollywood.

The Brooklyn Navy Yard Center at Building 92 is housed in a renovated four-story building that was formerly a Marine commandant’s mansion. The building, designed in 1857 by Thomas Ustick Walter, fell into disuse after the Navy decommissioned the site. Walter also designed the dome at the Capitol Building in Washington, D.C.

The former mansion, which was renovated with $25 million of city, state and federal money, now boasts rainwater-supplied bathrooms, geothermal heating, solar-heated hot water and a metal sun screen surrounding the entire building, designed to help keep down air conditioning costs in the summer. Many of the museum’s benches and seats are also made from wood that was recycled from the USS South Carolina, one of the many ships that were constructed at the Navy Yard.

The museum’s entrance proudly displays the 22,000-pound anchor of the USS Austin and other relics of Navy Yard history alongside examples of the site’s more modern creations, including a remote-controlled parachute, Kevlar vests and an animatronic pigeon that was used in the filming of The Producers at Steiner Studios. A first-floor gallery is entirely dedicated to the yard’s current tenants.

The galleries also include intricate ship models and an array of other maritime paraphernalia that were donated to the museum. Recorded oral histories that can be accessed by visitors describe the working conditions a half-century ago in the yard’s machine shops: a female machinist’s 58-hour workweek and her fight for the same $1.14 per hour that men received, and the recollections of the site’s first African-American machinist.

“It was like paradise,” the machinist says as he describes what he calls the job’s luxuries.

Another historical video on display, a piece of World War II propaganda, proclaims that “so much can be done in a day if Americans would keep their sleeves rolled up.” It was created to motivate factory workers to work harder and for longer shifts.

The Navy Yard museum features two computer centers, giving visitors access to more audio, video and photographic material related to the Navy Yard’s history and its tenants. Visitors will also have access to a database of records and information related to those who worked in the yard’s shops and factories.

The museum is about current events at the Navy Yard as much as it is its history, Kimball later said. They hope to highlight the site’s historical importance and exhibit what current tenants are doing.

“Nobody can walk out of this without appreciating the vibrancy of urban industry in New York City,” he added.

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