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On Historic Admirals Row, Fear That the End Is Near

Thursday, February 03, 2011

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.

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Comments [2]

Cathy Wassylenko from Brooklyn

Concerned preservationists have been in formal meetings for THREE YEARS with the National Guard. Protection for the houses was requested from the beginning, yet they have been left completely exposed to three years of violent storms and vandalism. This summer one of the houses finally collapsed in a torrential downpour. Had the buildings been even minimally secured, this would not have happened.

It is clear that there was never an interest in preserving Officers' Row. The National Guard, in closed-door meetings with the Brooklyn Navy Yard Development Corporation, decided that a parking lot for a mega-ShopRite would be the appropriate fate for the buildings.

Unfortunately the the BNYDC also controls the rest of the Navy Yard, with many other historic buildings and an 1840s drydock, non of which are designated and which are neglected or badly repaired.

It is shameful that this country cares so little for its history!

Feb. 04 2011 06:18 PM
MikeInBrklyn from Clinton Hill

The story of the Brooklyn Navy Yard's Admiral Row of houses and other buildings, is without doubt, one of the greatest example of demolition by neglect of a significant American historic place.

For over twenty years now, I have watched the stately officers quarters that line Flushing Avenue deteriorate. Back then the building stood majestically, fully intact, and showed no signs of decay. Today, as a result of all parties involved (The Navy, National Guard, The City, and Navy Yard Development Corporation) not taking steps to secure the structures, they stand in ruin, with one building in total collapse.

There was plenty of advocacy for the preservation of these buildings by local neighborhood groups, including a proposal to create a museum, but politics and ulterior motives (particularly, the NYDC and City) worked to squash progress in that direction.
While today, the demographic of the neighborhoods that surround Admirals Row has dramatically change (more gentrified, with expensive coop/condos and skyscrapers), 20 years ago the population was made up largely of working class blacks, and fronting Admirals Row are two substantial NYHPD housing projects - Navy Yard and Farragut Houses. It is hard to believe that these houses would not have had a different fate were they located on the banks of the East River in the upper 70s of Manhattan.

Today, the NYDC and City say the building are to far gone to restore; that building a giant super market will benefit the poor deprived residents of the projects and provide them jobs. But, years ago proponents for saving the buildings made the same augment and it was rejected. Why? Because NYDC never cared for the idea, and it was too dangerous to run a museum at Flushing Ave. and Navy St. in Brooklyn. Today the buildings are in ruin. They got want they want.

Feb. 04 2011 11:23 AM

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