Brooklyn, one building at a time.
Name: Marine Commandant’s House, Brooklyn Navy Yard, now BLDG 92
Address: 63 Flushing Avenue
Cross Streets: Carlton Avenue
Neighborhood: Fort Greene
Year Built: Original building, 1857, new addition and BLDG 92 complex, 2012
Architectural Style: Original building, Italianate
Architect: Original Marine Commandant’s house — Thomas U. Walter. BLDG 92 rehab and addition — Beyer Blinder Belle
Other works by architect: Walter — fourth architect of US Capitol. BBB — recent projects: Thurgood Marshall Courthouse, Lincoln Center Promenade, Morgan Library, all Manhattan, as well as many, many more.
The story: The Brooklyn Navy Yard is one of those places that not only defines Brooklyn, but helps define American history. That’s why it’s always been such a shame that for the longest time, since its decommission in 1966, the historic legacy of the Yard has remained shut away behind guarded iron gates and tall fencing. Passersby could see bits and pieces of the historic buildings that make up the Yard, but with the exception of an occasional tour, it was off-limits to the general public. Of course, if you worked at one of the many businesses in the Yard, you got to see more of it, but that still left most of us on the other side of the fence, literally.
There were always two Navy Yards, the first being the 19th century Naval Yard that served a fledgling US Navy since 1801. It saw the building and manning of the ships that protected the US during the War of 1812, and launched the Union vessels, including the iron-clad Monitor, during the Civil War. The 19th century produced some of the Yard’s most beautiful buildings, including hospital buildings, barracks, shipyard buildings, and housing for those who commanded the Yard, including the Naval Commandant, the Admiral’s Row officer’s houses and this, the Marine Commandant’s house.
The Brooklyn Navy Yard was so important to the 19th century military, that the government used the services of its finest architects to build the structures in the yard. The Marine Commandant’s house was designed by Thomas Ustick Walter, a Philadelphia architect with a rich and storied career. He was one of the foremost architects of the nation in the mid-1800s. Walter made a name for himself designing houses, and a lot of civic architecture, mostly in Pennsylvania. He designed prisons, schools and colleges, banks, churches and capital buildings. The latter made him famous, when he was chosen as the fourth architect to work on parts of the Capitol Building in Washington DC. It was Walter who designed and built the dome, as well as expanded the size of the building with large wings, giving it the shape we know today.
Walter designed the Marine Commandant’s house in 1857, while the construction of the Capitol was still being carried on. He’s also credited in some circles for the Second Empire style design of Quarters B and Quarters D in the Admiral’s Row houses. The large Marine Commandant’s house is a simple box, in the Italianate style, with massive brownstone quoins enclosing a symmetrical brick building with a cast iron Italianate entryway. The design was Spartan, as befits a Marine Commandant, but elegant, and fit well within the context of the other buildings in the Yard.
The second phase of the Navy Yard’s history took place during World War II, when the Yard was the scene for some of the most intensive military manufacturing ever known in America. Between the Civil War and World War I, many of the older buildings were no longer needed, and were allowed to genteelly sit there. World War II brought the Navy Yard back to life in a flurry of activity, and some of these buildings were repurposed. After the war was over, life at the Navy Yard began to trickle down and disappear, and in 1966, the Navy Yard was decommissioned, and the City had a large white elephant on its hands.
After languishing for many years, only partially used by private industry, the Navy Yard has been revitalized in the 21st century as a new manufacturing and tourist center. Preservationists and historians have long pleaded with the Yard to preserve its older buildings, to mixed results. But this one was saved. After years of seeing sold out crowds gather on those rare occasions that the Yard was opened for tours, the Navy Yard now has a new visitor’s center to welcome tours that are now year round.
The Marine Commandant’s house was repurposed as a new Visitor’s Center, along with a new 24,500 square foot, four story extension that rises behind it. This center, called BLDG 92, was designed by the prominent New York architectural firm of Beyer Blinder Belle, and completed just last year, in 2012. The center houses exhibits, classroom space, a café, and a large meeting/event space, as well as the headquarters for the Brooklyn Navy Yard Development Corporation’s employment center.
The center’s permanent exhibits include the anchor and chain from the USS Austin, one of the last battleships to be built in the Navy Yard. The exhibits showcase the Yard’s history, especially its shipbuilding history, and highlight the Navy Yard’s changes from a military installation, to a multi-industry urban industrial park. The entire complex cost close to $26 million dollars, and it was built according to LEED Certification standards, earning it Platinum Status, the highest designation for sustainable buildings. Please check BLDG 92’s website for hours and exhibits. This shouldn’t be missed. GMAP
(Photograph: Jim Henderson for Wikipedia)