NEW YORK – For more than a century, tens of thousands worked at the Brooklyn Navy Yard, building some of the nation's most storied warships — sailing frigates, Civil War ironclads, gunboats, sloops and 20th-century warships and submarines. The yard's sprawling hospital treated soldiers from the 1860s through World War II.
Now, more than four decades after the largest-scale shutdown of any military facility in U.S. history, the Navy Yard is coming to life again.
Today, the 300-acre facility hums as a vibrant industrial park with the Steiner Studios, the largest film and television complex outside Hollywood, and hundreds of other businesses. A $25.5 million museum and visitor's center under construction, the Brooklyn Navy Yard Center at Building 92, will highlight the shipyard's 210-year history with blueprints, maps, photos and vintage tools.
The navy yard once boasted its own power plant and radio station, more than 300 buildings and six dry docks where more than 160 ships were built, spanning 15 conflicts from the War of 1812 to the first Gulf War.
Beginning in 1801, only authorized personnel were allowed inside the site, on an East River inlet across from Lower Manhattan. Today, access is restricted to people who work there and to occasional paid tours. But when the museum opens on Veteran's Day in November, the yard will be open to the public for the first time.
The Associated Press recently toured the three-story museum site, housed in a restored 1857 home of the former Marine commandant designed by Thomas U. Walter, an architect of the U.S. Capitol.
For seven years, the museum's archivist, Daniella Romano, has been poring over more than 41,000 blueprints, photos, drawings, maps, and studying the yard's artifacts, including a bell and 22,500-pound anchor from the USS Austin.
"We are tapping into this extraordinary history of industry, innovation and creativity," she said. "The name is a national icon. But the real significance of the site was almost forgotten or only known to a very few."
Among the ships built or commissioned at the yard were the USS Monitor (1862), the Union's first ironclad ship; the USS Maine (1895), which exploded in Havana Harbor and precipitated the Spanish-American War; the USS Arizona (1915), which went down in the Japanese attack at Pearl Harbor; and the USS Missouri (1944), where the treaty ending World War II was signed.
The museum also will focus on the rebirth of the naval facility as an economic engine of 240 businesses and 5,000 workers. Andrew Kimball, president and CEO of the Brooklyn Navy Yard Development Corporation, which manages the yard for New York City, calls it a "dynamic and vibrant entrepreneurial example of modern-day urban manufacturing."
New York City bought the navy yard in 1967, a year after it was decommissioned, and reopened it as an industrial park. But only in 2000, with $200 million in city funds, could the agency upgrade its decaying infrastructure and diversify its tenant base.
Businesses at the yard include construction and food service companies and graphic designers and art studios. An 1899 machinist's warehouse the size of an airplane hangar is slated to be a green manufacturing center. Three of the dry docks still repair ships, and 90 structures remain.
The yard already has one of the nation's first multistory green-design buildings and solar-wind street lamps.
Its redevelopment is spurring development around it, where nondescript buildings and boarded-up bars in Brooklyn's Fort Greene section are giving way to construction, including a housing project going up in a former naval prison. A supermarket and retail center is planned for the yard.
The exhibit will be strong on personal stories, including those of two "Rosie the Riveter" welders talking about equal pay for equal work at the yard, and how Adm. Matthew Perry, a commandant of the navy yard who opened Japan to U.S. trade in 1854, helped establish the Naval Lyceum, the precursor to the U.S. Naval Academy.
Guided bus tours will take visitors past Dry Dock 1, a pre-Civil War landmark where the USS Monitor was outfitted with the first-of-its-kind revolving gun turrets, and the U.S. Naval Hospital, a 60,000-square-foot 1838 structure whose crumbling operating rooms and long white corridors stand eerily empty.
A gallery will be devoted to the hospital, where E.R. Squibb, the founder of Myers Squibb, was a Navy surgeon who introduced anesthetic ether in 1854.
Among the oral histories in the gallery will be that of 84-year-old Robert Hammond of Long Beach, Calif., one of 10 African-American nurses who arrived to complete his training at the naval hospital in the 1940s, when segregation was still prevalent. It wasn't until 1948 that racial discrimination was banned in the military.
"The petty officers didn't know what to do with us. ... They said we can't sent them to the ward, they'll interact with the white nurses, so they assigned us to kitchen duty," Hammond said in an interview. After a week, a lieutenant demanded to know what they were doing in the kitchen and sent them to work in the ward, where at first their duties included emptying bedpans, making beds and bathing patients.
The white marble hospital and the nearby ivy-covered chief surgeon's residence from 1846 have been stabilized and eventually will be part of the yard's growing entertainment industry, dominated by the Steiner Studios. This week, the production company of such films as "Sex and the City" and "The Sorcerer's Apprentice" announced plans to more than triple the size of its 15-acre facility over the next decade. Steiner and Brooklyn College also announced they are establishing a graduate school of cinema on the studio lot.
The studios moved to the yard in 2004 because it offered plenty of room for expansion, security, parking, ease of deliveries and proximity to highways and bridges, company president Doug Steiner said.
"It just made it easier to be an industrial business in New York City," said Steiner. "They've gone after businesses that represent the future in industry and manufacturing in New York City."