On Historic Admirals Row, Fear That the End Is Near

Tucked behind an iron fence on Flushing Avenue, Brooklyn, the eleven brick buildings known as Admirals Row are mostly ruins.

They are missing windows, doors and even walls. Yet looking at their 19th-century mansard roofs, intricate wooden parapets and cornices and arched windows, it's not surprising that high-ranking Navy officers at the Brooklyn Navy Yard once lived and worked there.

Ever since the Navy left the shipyard in 1966, the buildings -- each with its own design and flare -- have fallen to disrepair. A development compromise between the federal government and the Brooklyn Navy Yard Development Corporation was supposed to protect two of the structures. But now lack of action on the part of the feds may endanger both that agreement and the buildings themselves.

The building in question isnt one of the most intricate of the lot. It is the last in the row, on the far corner of the lot: the Timber Shed.

Today, its roof sags in the middle under the weight of mounds of snow. It is so run-down that a retaining wall protects people on the sidewalk outside should it collapse.

But Scott Witter, a trained architect who's been passionately fighting for Admirals Row for nearly a decade, believes the Timber Shed and the rest of the buildings have enough structural integrity to be saved.

"The 19th-century development is solid, plumb, level and square," said Witter. "The 20th-century development is what is falling off."

Underneath the Timber Shed's sag, it has beautiful arched doors and windows and was used to dry the masts for the ships built in the Navy Yard. Preservationists said it is the last of its kind in the nation.

Lisa Kersavage, Senior Director of Preservation and Sustainability at the Municipal Art Society, said the building is also an important relict of New York's maritime history.

"It was clear to everyone that these were significant buildings," Kersavage said. "I am not sure why they were neglected, but it was the federal government's doing."

The federal government maintained ownership of this corner of the Brooklyn Navy Yard after the rest of the complex was taken over by the City of New York in 1967.

In 2007, it was decided that the National Guard Bureau (NGB) was responsible for disposing of the buildings, i.e., selling them to the city.

After three years of negotiations, the NGB, the Brooklyn Navy Yard Development Corporation, who manages the property for the city, and a group of consulting preservationists agreed that the Timber Shed and the oldest residential building, known as Building B, were to be restored as part of a National Historic Preservation Act (NHPA) Section 106 process. 

The development plan called for the rest of Admiral's Row to be razed to make room for a 55,000-square foot ShopRite supermarket. It would be one of the biggest in the city.

As part of the discussions in April 2010, the National Guard agreed to shore up the buildings to protect them from the elements. Despite repeated requests by the Municipal Art Society and the Brooklyn Navy Yard, they failed to do that.

Instead, at the end of last month, the National Guard Bureau sent out a letter saying its engineers had declared the Timber Shed beyond repair and recommended it be demolished. Kristin Leahy, the Cultural Resources Program Manager for the National Guard, said the Guard wants to turn the building over to the city as is.

"Blue-tarping a building in the kind of condition these buildings are in is not adequate and is not going to make a real difference," Leahy said.

The shoring of the buildings was also more expensive than first thought, Leahy admitted. The final renovation of the two buildings is estimated to cost around $40 million each. Still, Lisa Kersavage, from the Municipal Art Society, said was shocked to get the news.

"It seems to be the decision was based on finances instead of what they should have been focusing on how can they mitigate the demolition of some clearly very important historic buildings," Leahy said.

Andrew Kimball, CEO for the Brooklyn Navy Yard Development Corporation, said changing the requirements could endanger the deal completely. He said the developer still wants to include the Timber Shed in the redevelopment plan. But he said they could only do that if the federal government acts expeditiously.

"They need to stabilize the Timber Shed and B or allow us and our development partners on the site to stabilize the Timber Shed and moves forward with the site transfer," Kimball said.

Kimball said the Brooklyn Navy Yard Development Corporation would require the developers to preserve the Timber Shed. But the building's fate is still uncertain. If the Section 106 preservation agreement doesn't include the Timber Shed, the BNYDC wouldn't be under any legal obligation to restore the building. Nor would they likely get money from the federal government to offset the costs of renovation.

The group will meet again to discuss the Section 106 preservation agreement on February 8 in New York. But with every heavy snow and freezing rain bringing on more damage, preservationists are afraid before a decision is reached, the Timber Shed could end the winter as a case of demolition by neglect.