NEW YORK — The story of the Brooklyn Navy Yard and its vital role in American history as a major military shipbuilding site spans more than 200 years. But it's also the story of the adaptive reuse of a historic site as a bustling industrial park that today employs thousands of people in such diverse fields as film production and green energy manufacturing.
The two stories of the navy yard — decommissioned by the government in 1966 — are the themes of a new museum opening Friday, Veterans Day, on the sprawling grounds of the 300-acre campus located in an East River inlet across from Lower Manhattan.
The design of the $25.6 million Brooklyn Navy Yard Center at Building 92 also reflects those stories. The museum is housed in the restored 1857 house of the former Marine commandant and is connected to a modern three-story visitors center featuring a solar screen with an image of the USS Brooklyn leaving the yard in 1936.
A 22,500-pound anchor from the USS Austin — one of the last ships built on the site — and a wind-solar street lamp are the first yard-manufactured artifacts visitors will see upon entering the glass atrium lobby.
"These will show the public right there what the exhibit in the building is all about: The past, the present and the future," Andrew Kimball, president and CEO of the Brooklyn Navy Yard Development Corporation, which manages the yard for the city.
"For the first time, the public is going to be able to come in behind our gates and learn about the extraordinarily rich history of the yard and also about how we've become a national model for sustainable urban industrial parks," Kimball said.
The exhibition is drawn from more than 41,000 blueprints, historic photos, drawings, maps and yard artifacts and fills six galleries on three floors of the historic building that was designed by Thomas U. Walter, an architect of the U.S. Capitol.
"You are going to see the whole history of the United States projected through a very specific lens of Brooklyn and the Brooklyn Navy Yard," said museum archivist Daniella Romano.
New York City purchased the yard in 1967 but attempts to revitalize it failed until 2000, when the city began to invest in stabilizing its infrastructure.
It's the first time the story of the yard has been told in a comprehensive way, Romano said.
At Building 92, the story unfolds with a timeline and a 40-foot-long wall mural of the different classes of ships built or launched at the yard — sailing frigates, Civil War ironclads, gunboats, 20th century warship and submarines. They included such storied ships as the Fulton II, the first U.S. steam warship assigned to sea duty; the USS Maine, which exploded in Havana Harbor and precipitated the Spanish-America War; the USS Arizona, which went down in the Japanese attack at Pearl Harbor; and the USS Missouri on which the treaty ending World War II was signed.
A mangled steel pipe from the USS Arizona and a detailed model of the USS Ohio, which intercepted slave ships off the coast of Africa in the 1800s, are among the objects on display. An interactive table map allows multiple users to navigate the evolution of the yard through geography and time. And ambient sounds of pistons, steam engines and hammering recreate the atmosphere of the yard's bygone era.
But the yard wasn't just about shipbuilding. Visitors learn that the first singing voice was broadcast wirelessly in 1907 aboard the USS Dolphin docked in the yard. Commodore Matthew C. Perry established the Naval Lyceum there, a precursor to the U.S. Naval Academy; and E. R. Squibb, a Navy surgeon who founded Myers Squibb, introduced anesthetic ether at the yard's sprawling U.S. Naval Hospital, where soldiers from the 1860s through WWII were treated.
Oral histories tell other stories. Robert Hammond, one of 10 African-American nurses at the naval hospital in the 1940s, talks about initially being relegated to kitchen duty and two "Rosie the Riveter" welders speak about their fight to get the same $1.14 hourly wage their male counterparts got.
In "Today's Yard" gallery, portraits, videos and products tell the story of the yard's 6,000 workers and 275 businesses. Visitors learn, for example, that Steiner Studios —the largest film and television complex outside Hollywood — is the yard's largest tenant.
Museumgoers also can take a guided bike or bus tour of the vast campus, driving past a pre-Civil War dry dock, a gargantuan 1899 machinist's warehouse slated to become a green manufacturing center, and the naval hospital that stands frozen in time.
If You Go...
BROOKLYN NAVY YARD CENTER AT BUILDING 92: http://www.bldg92.com . Located at Flushing and Carlton avenues, Brooklyn. Opens Friday, Nov. 11 and Wednesday-Sunday thereafter, noon to 6 p.m. Directions by mass transit online. Free admission.