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Historic Brooklyn Navy Yard Gets Modern Makeover

Fri May 30, 2008 - Northeast Edition

By Richard Pyle

Associated Press Writer

NEW YORK (AP) When the Pentagon closed the Brooklyn Navy Yard in 1966, it became an obsolete facility awash in history but torpedoed by time.

Yet within the past 15 years, the 40-plus buildings behind the nondescript facade have become a modern beehive of activity that includes almost everything but, well, bees.

Its old machine shops and warehouses hum with small entrepreneurs — makers of furniture, clothing, industrial equipment, theatrical sets and computer software — as well as medical suppliers, fashion designers, printers, carpenters and artists, altogether employing 5,000 people.

Andrew Kimball, president and CEO of the Brooklyn Navy Yard Development Corp., a not-for-profit that manages the city-owned site, said current plans call for spending $250 million in public and private money to add 1.3 million sq. ft. (120,774 sq m) of space and 1,500 more jobs by 2009. In a decade, he said, there should be 5,000 more jobs.

“The Brooklyn Navy Yard has added another chapter to its rich history by becoming a thriving hub of industrial business,’’ Kimball said.

It didn’t happen overnight.

With the Navy gone, the dry docks and cranes that helped win seven wars fell into disrepair. The carved eagles-on-pillars guarding the main gate vanished and front entrance eventually became a police department auto pound, where citizens pay $200 or more to reclaim stolen and towed vehicles.

At the old naval hospital, a marble ghost dating from 1837, the wide corridors and patient wards echo with emptiness. On Admiral’s Row, six graceful turn-of-the-century mansions once occupied by top officers and still owned by the federal government, are falling into ruin, their future still unclear.

Kimball and Daniella Romano, the Navy yard’s resident archivist, said the new development will give the Navy yard’s past its due, including oral histories of former workers such as Audrey Lyons who was a $40-a-week parts inspector in 1944 when Margaret Truman was invited to christen the brand-new USS Missouri.

The daughter of Sen. Harry S. Truman, who was soon to be president, needed help to break the champagne bottle on the third try — a less than sparkling debut for the “Mighty Mo,’’ the last truly famous warship among hundreds produced at the yard since 1801.

“We all took time off to see it,’’ recalled Lyons, now 84 and retired in Essex, Conn.

The first ship built there, in 1798, was the frigate USS Adams, burned by its crew in 1812 to avoid British capture. The last, the amphibious transport USS Duluth, slipped into the East River in 1965.

Other noteworthy vessels included the Fulton II, the first U.S. steam-powered warship to go to sea, in 1837; USS Niagara, which helped lay the first trans-Atlantic undersea cable; and USS Monitor, built elsewhere but commissioned at the yard in 1862. Within weeks it faced the Confederates’ CSS Virginia in history’s first clash of ironclads — a standoff, but a death knell for wooden warships.

USS Maine, America’s first battleship, was commissioned in 1889 and exploded at its dock in Havana in 1898, triggering the Spanish-American War that recast the United States as a world power.

The battleship USS Arizona, launched in 1915, remains the best-known symbol of America’s entry into World War II. Moored near its sunken hulk at Pearl Harbor is the Missouri, now a floating museum symbolizing the Allied victory in 1945.

At the Brooklyn Navy Yard, a parking lot will replace the police auto pound and a building near the main gate will offer guided tours and an exhibit of photographs and artifacts.

The gate itself is to be restored as nearly as possible to its turn-of-the-20th century look.

The continuing expansion of the Navy yard will emphasize “green’’ construction. Hospital buildings and an overgrown cemetery that once held 1,500 bodies await transformation into a 20-acre “media campus’’ focused on entertainment, TV and graduate educational programs. (The bodies were reburied in a cemetery in Queens.)

Some of the six dry docks remain in use for maintenance. On a recent day, one held a large Singapore-based oil products tanker. The U.S. Coast Guard tug Sturgeon Bay occupied another.

“Maritime is still part of what we do,’’ Kimball said.

The yard’s biggest tenant is Steiner Studios, a Hollywood-style operation in a cavernous former machine shop with sound stages where large pieces of vessels were once assembled. It, too, is expanding.

There is a fish wholesaler to fancy restaurants, a shroud-maker for Orthodox Jewish funerals and a factory producing coffee-sweetener packets.

At Ferra Designs Inc., partners Robert Ferraroni and Jeff Kahn use a powerful water jet to cut steel for custom-designed furniture and sculpture. They found space at the Navy yard after rising rents forced a move from the nearby Williamsburg neighborhood.

“The Navy yard is a great resource for networking with other businesses,’’ Kahn said. “I feel like we’re in a community here. We do business together, and it reinforces the feeling that we are in the right place.’’ CEG

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