|Should you go?|
|Time spent||95 minutes|
|Best thing I saw or learned||A quote from a guy who works at a set design firm based in the Navy Yard today: “This building built ships and now we build Saturday Night Live in it.”|
BLDG 92 is the vowel-challenged, fascinating, historical center of the Brooklyn Navy Yard. It tells the story of the Navy Yard through artifacts, an interactive tabletop, and a comprehensive timeline.
The Story of the Place
And what a story! Wallabout Bay was a center of seafaring activity in Brooklyn going back to the New Amsterdam days. As early as 1642 a rowboat ferry service existed from there to the woodsy island across the river. During the revolution, the bay sheltered the notorious British prison ships, sites of harrowing suffering for captured revolutionaries. In 1799, John Jackson’s shipyard built the U.S.S. Adams, the first naval ship constructed there. In 1801, the United States purchased John Jackson’s yard as one of the first five shipyards of the fledgling U.S. Navy. And from there BLDG 92’s exhibits proceed to recount life at the Navy Yard through the ages of sail and steam, the great ships constructed there, and the great machines and men that constructed them.
At its peak, during World War II, the Navy Yard went on a 24/7 schedule, and the workforce exploded from 14,000 to 71,000.
And BLDG 92 tells a story of decline and fall, too: the Navy left the Navy Yard in 1966, and as maritime activity shifted elsewhere and shipbuilding declined in New York harbor, what to do with the place became an increasingly pressing question. It’s been a long slow process. In 1971 there were four companies and 230 employees in the whole of the Yard.
But the city and the Brooklyn Navy Yard Development Corporation have slowly found businesses to set up shop there, growing it into an incubator of diverse manufacturing and other industries. It seems to be thriving today, recently making efforts to encourage and attract green technologies, for instance. Aside: my kitchen countertops (Icestone, recycled concrete and glass) were manufactured there.
I knew of the Navy Yard and its past and present roles, but I had no idea the depth of the history or the importance of the place until I visited.
The exhibits span three floors of the historic commandant’s quarters, thoroughly altered from its use as a residence. Additionally, there’s a very modern, not totally successful, addition stuck onto and into the fabric of the historic building. Old brickwork and signs of former windows and such convey the age of the place.
The aforementioned timeline is terrific, covering the histories of Brooklyn, New York, and the country as well as the Navy Yard. It does a fine job creating context, reinforcing the many times the Yard, or at least ships constructed there, played a role on the national or global stage. Red stripes mark war years.
BLDG 92 displays a rich mix of objects and artifacts; ship models abound. Wall texts balance reciting facts and figures with relating the lives of the people who worked there. And odd doses of humor keep things lively. The ceiling display in the picture below outlines the steps in building a new naval vessel at the Yard. Step 5 reads, “Celebrity Puts in First Rivet.” I think they called that the Instagram Rivet back in the day.
It also exhibits an old jug, with the story of Sands Street, the red light district near the Navy Yard: “Sands Street was a magnet for sailors, with its tattoo parlors and brothels, its stores filled with equipment, clothing and souvenirs, its eateries, and, as the jug suggests, bars and saloons.” I walked by Sands Street on leaving BLDG 92. Today it’s full of housing projects, and not very magnetic for sailors at all.
The “magic table” interactive display won me over — it presents a slowly changing map view of Wallabout Bay over the centuries, with major news events highlighted, and key buildings and other features “tappable” to view more information on them. I’m always skeptical of this sort of thing, but BLDG 92 executed well. It includes nice design touches like having a ship steaming around the circumference of the table as the year indicator.
I feel warmly enthusiastic about BLDG 92. Like the very different Noble Maritime Collection, it is yet another of the city’s outstanding maritime museums. BLDG 92’s sole minus relates to its location: far from the subway and in a crap neighborhood. Still, anyone with even a remote interest in the history of New York, naval history, the harbor, engineering, or adaptive re-use of abandoned industrial sites… should go. There are many reasons to visit, and BLDG 92 tells its story in a way that makes the journey worthwhile.
|Address||63 Flushing Avenue, Brooklyn|
|Other Relevant Links||On the American Prison Ship Martyrs of the Revolutionary War|