Navy Yard

Tour of Navy Yard, old & new, ties together three 19th-century Brooklyn icons

May 23, 2017 By Paula Katinas Brooklyn Daily Eagle
The historic Brooklyn Navy Yard is still a hub of activity today. The Alice Oldendorff delivers gravel to the port. Eagle photos by Paula Katinas
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Andrew Sichenze, a lawyer from Bay Ridge, has many fond memories of the first time he visited the Brooklyn Navy Yard as a fresh-faced 12-year-old boy back in 1944. It was during World War II and young Sichenze had come to the Navy Yard to witness the christening of a majestic new ship.

“I had an uncle who worked in the Brooklyn Navy Yard. Seeing the ship christened was an amazing experience for a kid. It was so exciting,” Sichenze told the Brooklyn Eagle.

Sichenze made a return trip to the Brooklyn Navy Yard on the afternoon of May 17 as part of a group from the Municipal Club of Brooklyn taking a tour of the 300-acre site.

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The tour was part of a new series called “Brooklyn Eagle Discovery Events” presented by the Brooklyn Daily Eagle, and hosted by the Municipal Club of Brooklyn.

The Municipal Club of Brooklyn was founded in 1897 by executives of the original Brooklyn Daily Eagle.  Brooklyn was a still a city unto itself, with an impending vote to consolidate with Greater New York into five boroughs. The vote was “yes” by a very small margin, despite the Eagle’s stance for “no.” Consolidation won and Brooklyn was merged in 1898.

But the Municipal Club of Brooklyn remained active in civic affairs and continues to this day.

Today, perhaps ironically, the president of the Municipal Club is Brooklyn Daily Eagle publisher Dozier Hasty.

On May 17, members of the club and their guests enjoyed the two-hour bus tour of the Brooklyn Navy Yard, led by Turnstile Tours NYC Vice President Andrew Gustafson.

Like the Municipal Club of Brooklyn, the Brooklyn Navy Yard is also a product of 19th-century America. It was founded in 1801 during the final year of President John Adams’administration. The facility was decommissioned in 1966 when Lyndon Johnson was president.

Today, the Navy Yard is owned by New York City, which purchased it from the federal government in 1969. It sits on the waterfront of Wallabout Bay and is surrounded by Williamsburg, Bedford-Stuyvesant, Clinton Hill, Fort Greene and Vinegar Hill. It is operated by the Brooklyn Navy Yard Development Corporation, which has become primarily a “fast-growing incubator for companies that make or design things,” according to one employee. But there is still heavy construction and repair at the yard as well.

The yard is a thriving business hub that is home of 330 private businesses, including several small mom-and-pop owned shops. “Seventy percent of the companies here are small with 10 or fewer employees,” Gustafson told club members.

The businesses, which employ 7,000 workers, are spread across 40 buildings on the campus.

One of the most famous tenants is Steiner Studios, which opened in 2004 and where “Girls,” “Boardwalk Empire” and other shows have been filmed. Another company makes the sets for all of the Saturday Night Live productions.

Gustafson predicted that by the year 2020, there will be 16,000 jobs at the Brooklyn Navy Yard.

The tour began inside Building 92, which serves as the Brooklyn Navy Yard Center. It was built in 1857 as the Marine Commandant’s Residence. “Today it is the cultural center,” Gustafson said.

Building 92 sits on the perimeter of the Brooklyn Navy Yard on Flushing Avenue.

“The architect of this building is the same man who designed the dome of the U.S. Capitol,” Gustafson said, referring to Thomas U. Walter.

Gustafson said he wanted to start the tour at Building 92 because “it’s a great way to bridge the past and the present.”

The exhibition room in Building 92 is decorated with an impressive mural depicting the various types of ships built at the Navy Yard during its history.

Surprisingly, only 140 ships were built in the Brooklyn Navy Yard during its entire existence.

Repairing ships was actually the main focus of the Brooklyn Navy Yard.

But, still, many famous ships were constructed there, including the USS Arizona, which was commissioned in 1916 and was sunk by the Japanese in the attack on Peal Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941.

Another ship built in the Brooklyn Navy Yard was the USS Missouri, commissioned in 1944. It was the ship on which the Japanese formally surrendered in World War II in 1945.

Gustafson said the two ships served as historic bookends to World War II.

During World War II, 70,000 people worked in the Brooklyn Navy Yard.

The sights on the Brooklyn Navy Yard tour included Building 121, formerly the building where Navy Yard workers would go to receive their paychecks. It now houses Kings County Distillery. You can catch a glimpse of the barrels through the windows.

The Brooklyn Navy Yard has six dry docks for ship repairs. The tour group visited Dry Dock 1, getting off the bus to climb the stairs to a viewing platform, where Gustafson explained how a dry dock works.

A dry dock is a narrow basin that can be temporarily flooded to allow a ship to be floated in and then drained to allow that ship to rest on a dry platform. Dry docks are used for the construction, maintenance and repair of ships.

Dry Dock 1 is protected by a wall from the Wallabaout Bay. The wall can be moved in and out to let in water and to prevent water from flowing in.

Gustafson also discussed the famous fire that took place in the Brooklyn Navy Yard on Dec. 19, 1960, when a blaze broke out on the USS Constellation during construction, killing 50 workers. Many people felt the tragic fire was the beginning of the end for the Brooklyn Navy Yard, which had been largely neglected and had fallen into disrepair at that point.

The federal government had started transferring the process of shipbuilding to private shipping yards.

In 1964, U.S. Defense Secretary Robert McNamara decided to close dozens of military facilities around the country and the Brooklyn Navy Yard was on the closure list. It was closed in 1966. The federal government sold the 300-acre property to New York City. The sale was completed in 1969. While struggling for decades — with government help — to keep industry alive, the yard  only began to flourish quite naturally when the emergence of high-tech and entertainment industries (the need for large spaces by movie studios) brought new hope into the new century.

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