BLDG 92, the new museum and visitors center for the Brooklyn Navy Yard that opened last month, offers the general public an opportunity to look behind a walled-off stretch of the Brooklyn waterfront between Flushing Avenue and Wallabout Bay that has played a pivotal role in US naval and military history since its founding in 1801. The Navy Yard, which was one of the first five shipyards in the United States, saw its peak during World War II when over 70,000 employees were based at the site, a workforce that eventually shrunk to less than 10,000 in the years before its official closing in 1966. [The closing of the Brooklyn Navy Yard was the result of the same cost-cutting measures that led to the decommissioning of the Brooklyn Army Terminal. –Ed.] In 1971, the Yard reopened as a City-owned industrial park, which today has 230 tenants and over 5,000 employees and is in the midst of a rejuvenation and redevelopment effort led by the Brooklyn Navy Yard Development Corporation (BNYDC).
BLDG 92 inhabits the 1857 Marine Commandant’s house, originally designed by Thomas Ustick Walter and fully restored with a 20,000-square-foot addition by Beyer Blinder Belle and workshop/apd. The exterior of the addition is impressive, and recalls the building’s shipbuilding history in the image adorning the perforated metal façade. The interior, however, is much simpler, more modest in its approach. The clean white walls and metal detailing clearly delineate it from the wood and brick historic space — although so much of that interior is covered by exhibition material that you can easily forget that the building is 154 years old. As part of the new green building initiative at the Yard, BLDG 92 is aiming for LEED Platinum certification, and the BNYDC is working hard to share that goal with the public. Upon entering the museum, you’re given instructions for a “Sustainability Scavenger Hunt” that leads you around the building and grounds, to eighteen stations that highlight specific sustainability features. It’s an engaging way to introduce green building principles to children, and a large part of the BLDG 92 educational mission seems to cater to a young audience. BNYDC has partnered with the Brooklyn Historical Society to provide curriculum materials for students in all grades, tours are provided for schools during the week, and free learning materials are provided on the BLDG 92 website to compliment these visits.
The inaugural exhibit, Brooklyn Navy Yard: Past, Present and Future, examines the 165-year history of the Yard. On the first floor, you find a chronological overview of the history of Brooklyn, the Navy Yard, and relevant US military activity, along with a section dedicated to how military innovations have influenced mass-market product design. The second floor delves more into the history of naval ship building, and highlights a few of the major vessels constructed at the Navy Yard and elsewhere in Brooklyn. Two mutoscopes on display – which remind me of the classic ‘80s viewfinder toy – allow you to watch a slide show of sorts of a dry-dock in action. The third floor of the museum also houses “Gallery 92,” which will host rotating, temporary shows. Currently on view is an exhibit curated by Christopher Anderson, a Yard tenant and war photojournalist, in memory of his friend Tim Hetherington who was killed in April 2011 while documenting the Libyan revolution. The fourth floor features an outpost of the Cobble Hill cafe Ted & Honey, and a seating area wrapped by a terrace that offers views overlooking the Yard.
The mission of the Brooklyn Navy Yard Center at BLDG 92 is not limited to education and sustainability. The community center and museum serves as a way for the BNYDC to maintain good will with the surrounding community in the face of contentious debate about the redevelopment of the site — the preservation of Admiral’s Row, a series of historic houses most of which will be razed to make way for a large supermarket, is just one example — and to promote the viability of industry-led development. It will be interesting to see how the future growth and reinvention of the Yard is represented in the museum’s programs. But, from this first look, BLDG 92 has the potential to be an excellent addition to the cultural landscape of Brooklyn and to engage the local community in ways the Navy Yard of years prior was unable to do.
Katie Stapleton is a licensed architect currently working at Kliment Halsband Architects. She is particularly interested in the relationship between architecture and [German] politics and interim architectural installations in an urban context. She is a former project associate for Urban Omnibus.
The views expressed here are those of the author only and do not reflect the position of Urban Omnibus editorial staff or the Architectural League of New York.