Architect’s Diary: Dry Dock No. 1

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Today marks the beginning of a new series called Architect’s Diary in which we ask Brooklyn architects (those either living or working in the borough) to submit a personal essay about a piece of architecture that they feel a particularly strong connection to. We kick it off with a submission from Brendan Coburn of Coburn Architecture in Dumbo. If you’re interested in participating please send text and photos to brownstoner@brownstoner.com.

When it comes to design, the borough of Brooklyn has no shortage of wonderful architecture. But to me, it is the Brooklyn Navy Yard that remains one of the great repositories of remarkable buildings, structures, and infrastructures, each of them full of purpose. I have had a chance to visit the Yard many times over the years, beginning when I was a kid in the 1970s and went with my dad to see woodworkers and furniture-makers who called the Yard their home. These trips were particularly fascinating because my dad had been stationed in the Yard for three years as a young man while serving as a junior officer in the concisely named Navy Bureau of Ships. He delighted in wandering around the Yard, excitedly pointing out the places where he had worked, marveling at what had been built since that time, and explaining how the entire place had operated.

These days, the Navy Yard is undergoing a revival of sorts, attracting new artists and businesses that are retrofitting its cavernous spaces into sleek industrial studios and efficient wholesale distribution centers. But amidst the influx of new commerce, the old important work of repairing and maintaining sea-worthy vessels goes on, unabated, years after aircraft carriers grew too large to clear the Brooklyn Bridge.

Today the sprawling 300-acre mixed-use campus remains home to six dry docks, more than 40 buildings, and 12 cranes, which look like prehistoric insects, their rust-spotted exoskeletons mounted on spindly legs. Because many of the structures are a bit long in the tooth, it is hard to tell whether they are receiving the maintenance they need.

Dry Dock No. 1 is to me the most intriguing of all the docks. Built in 1841 as an exclusive domain for repairs to military ships — and not completed until 1851 — it is the oldest one in the lot, and the third oldest functioning dry dock in the United States after the Norfolk Naval Shipyard in Virginia and the Charlestown Naval Yard in Boston. (Devotees, however, report that the site was scouted as early as 1826). Fashioned entirely from massive, hand-cut and hand-sanded blocks of granite excavated from a quarries in Maine, Connecticut, Staten Island and upstate New York, its size, form, and general aesthetic bring to mind a Roman ruin.

At 344 feet long, 50 feet wide, and 21 feet deep, it is currently serviced by a magnificent but rather derelict looking crane. The operators of the Yard report that despite its age, Dry Dock No. 1 continues to be one of the most reliable of all of the dry docks, booked solid with work for many years to come.

One muggy Friday afternoon this summer, I dropped by the Yard and found Dry Dock No. 1 fully engaged in the repair of an immense hopper barge owned by Cashman Dredging. (A hopper is the vessel into which the dredge dumps the sludge it scoops up). Its harbor doors were in need of some re-sealing and its hydraulic arm needed to be re-built. And so its hulking, hollow mass sat delicately balanced on giant wedges called hull blocks, and from underneath its steel hull, I could see the flicker of a welder’s blow torch. The following Monday, after about 10 days of repairs, the giant lock-like gate at the end of the dry dock that is called a caisson would open, and the hopper would be towed out into the harbor and up to New Bedford, Mass. where it was commissioned for a project.

The reason I love this structure is that its form and construction are so beautifully aligned with its function. The fact that something was built well enough in the 1840s to function precisely as it was intended to some 150 years later is a testament to the value of good construction, particularly in an era when so many shoddily built condominiums and strip malls are popping up all over our exquisite borough. That crane lurking overhead, like a ghost left over from the 1940s, added to the strange beauty of this hidden wonder.

A shipyard fanatic, architect Brendan Coburn lives in Carroll Gardens with his wife and son who, at the age of five, has already been indoctrinated into his dad’s passion. Brendan is the founding partner of Coburn Architecture, PC, a residential and commercial architecture and interiors firm located in DUMBO.

0 Comment

  • great new series as its nice to get an expert’s view of bklyn architecture. however, are places like this dry dock open to the public? its one thing to read about such nifty places, but a downer if the public can’t actually experience it for themselves.

    looking forward to more!

  • Brownstoner

    How cool. I’ve been in the Navy Yard but never seen this upclose. Also dig the personal feel of this feature. I hope other architects follow suit.

  • Love it! A great feature, looking forward to more.

  • The Brooklyn Navy Yard as a whole is not open to the General Public. There are guards at the gate who will only let you in if you work for one of the tenant businesses or if you have scheduled an appointment with one of the tenants. If you can get past the guard, then Dry Dock 1 is also fenced off by GMD, the shipyard tenant who leases and runs the dock. Ship repair work is dangerous and involves sparks flying everywhere,asbestos abatement, and cranes carrying heavy object overhead – so I don’t think it would be a good idea to let the general public in, no matter how cool the space is. You can either take it out of active use and turn it into a museum, so people can see it, or you can keep it active and limit visitation to those lucky few who are able to wrangle themselves a tour from the BNYDC. Though I totally empathize with goldie (comment #1) I think it’s clearly better for Brooklyn (and in the spirit of the yard) to limit access and keep this amazing structure working.

  • They built a viewing area for dry dock number 1. I was just there for a tour. I don’t know if they are officially open to the public. You can call the Brooklyn Navy Yard office and ask. The Navy yard operating people are in the process of building a museum that will be open to the Public on Navy Street….

  • that’s great about the museum! I have a friend whose father worked in the navy Yard for years doing ship repair. would so love to know more. And it’s so important to keep as much industry in NYC as possible.

  • I Architects! Great addition to Brownstoner…

  • This is great! Can’t wait to see more like this.