Current & Coming  |  By Rachael Dealy Salisbury

Testing the fate of Admiral's Row

July 2, 2009  |  Quarters C, the second-oldest residence on Admiral's Row—the compound built between 1853 and 1901 to house the officers of the former Brooklyn Navy Yard—collapsed almost entirely on June 18.  Although the building had previously suffered irreversible damage from fire, recent heavy rains felled a fatal blow, causing the walls to give way, leaving little but the facade intact.  Given this dire situation, it is worth considering the significance of Admiral's Row, its preservation, and the current state of development plans for the site.

Admiral's Row consists of ten residences, built in a range of styles from Italianate and Second Empire to Queen Anne, as well as a timber shed, dating from 1838, in which wooden ship masts were stored and cured.  Surrounded by a high brick wall, the complex once also included tennis courts, a convertible stable/ice-skating rink, fruit trees, a communal vegetable garden, and parade grounds.  Lisa Kersavage, Senior Director of Advocacy and Policy for the Municipal Art Society of New York (MAS), notes that the residences "were built on a grander scale than other similar buildings in navy yards across the nation, and the timber shed is likely the only remaining structure of its kind in the United States." The elaborate interiors are testament to the major role played by the Brooklyn Navy Yard in the Civil War, the Spanish-American War, and both World Wars.  Pieces of that history have already been lost with the destruction of the Navy Yard itself in 1966, and now, the residences, which were inhabited until the late 1970s, face a similar fate. Their preservation has sparked a heated debate.

The U.S. Army National Guard Bureau is in the process of selling the property to the City of New York and the Brooklyn Navy Yard Development Corporation (BNYDC).  The BNYDC proposes to demolish the eleven buildings—all eligible for National Register landmark status, and occupying only 25 percent of the six-acre site—to make room for a large-scale grocery store, parking lot, and retail space.  

Fortunately, the sale requires compliance with the National Historic Preservation Act of 1966, so over the past year the National Guard Bureau has undertaken the review process mandated in Section 106, which necessitates assessing the effects of the proposed action on the properties.

Historic significance aside, reuse is arguably the most sustainable form of development, and MAS, one of many organizations currently fighting for the preservation of Admiral's Row, believes that it is possible to develop the site in a way that benefits both the surrounding community and the historic structures.  MAS has proposed eleven different plans, which are still open for debate, that accomplish these goals. As Kersavage observes, the proposed supermarket and preservation of Admiral's Row are not mutually exclusive: existing structures could be used for a community center and retail space, while also accommodating a newly built grocery store and maintaining open public space on the site.

Despite the BNYDC's claims that it is economically impossible to preserve the residences of Admiral's Row—structures that BNYDC president Andrew Kimball deems "a blighted eyesore that has burdened the community and the Brooklyn Navy Yards for decades"—a report commissioned by the National Guard Bureau determined that restoration costs are significantly lower than those estimated by the BNYDC, and that it would be both financially and structurally possible to restore, renovate, and reuse the existing historic structures. The most recent development includes an agreement to save a minimum of two structures, including the timber shed, and the BNYDC has issued a request for new design proposals. A preservation-minded design may ensure that even more of the historic structures remain.

Media coverage of these proceedings suggests that the die has been cast, claiming that the BNYDC and the National Guard have slated the remaining buildings for demolition, but there is still time to advocate for the preservation of Admiral's Row. Those who wish to weigh in on the future of the site can email to the National Guard at AdmiralsRowBNY@usace.army.mil, or contact appropriate elected officials: Senators Charles Schumer and Kristen Gillibrand; Congresswoman Nydia Velazquez; State Senator Daniel Squadron; Assembly Member Joe Lentol; and Council Member Letitia James.

For further information regarding Admiral's Row and additional coverage of plans for the site visit brownstoner.com, crainsnewyork.com, curbed.com, hdc.org, mas.org, and officersrow.org.

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