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 nonprofit that manages the city-owned site, said current plans call for spending $250 million in public and private money to add 1.3 million square feet 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,” he says. It didn’t happen overnight.
With the Navy gone, the drydocks 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-impound lot.
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, daughter of Vice President Harry S. Truman, was invited to christen the brand-new USS Missouri, the last truly famous warship among hundreds produced at the yard since 1801.
“We all took time off to see it,” recalls Ms. 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.
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