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November 8, 2007

Unexpected Discoveries

Left image from "Plans of Marine Barracks at Brooklyn, NY." from the office of the Architect of the Capitol, Washington, D.C.; Right image via Brownstoner

About two years ago, while working on some research about Admiral’s Row, one of my professors lent me an envelope of microfilmed plans that he had gotten years before from the office of the Architect of the Capitol in Washington. The drawings were labeled “House of the Commandant." We thought that they might be related to the houses, however after some close inspection, it was discovered that they were not (nor were they related to the actual Commandant’s House in Vinegar Hill- the plans were for the home and barracks of the Marine Commandant). Still, the plans were intriguing, and I emailed some of the scans to our contact at the Brooklyn Navy Yard, wondering if the building still existed and where on the site it might have been.

It was confirmed that the plans had nothing to do with Admiral’s Row, however our contact did some digging and realized, quite excitedly, that they matched another site in the Yard- Building 92. Furthermore, the designs appeared to be authored by Thomas U. Walter- the fourth architect of the U.S. Capitol building (Senate and House wings, as well as the dome). Given that information, Building 92 held some great historic relevance. It was (is) also (I think) one of the older buildings in the Yard. Yesterday the Brooklyn Navy Yard announced their plans for the restoration of Building 92, which will be a historical center, as well as a site for the Brooklyn Center for the Urban Environment. I am sure that the Brooklyn Navy Yard will release a more detailed history of the building at some point and am very excited to see it.

A very big part of me wishes that those plans had been related to Admiral’s Row- perhaps they would have helped the preservation effort in some way. But I also am really happy that the Brooklyn Navy Yard acted on Building 92, recognized its significance and spent two years pushing for the funding and partnerships required to save it. Of course you could say that one does not make up for the other, however I don’t believe that these issues are quite so simple. You can be disappointed and angry about one thing and congratulatory about the other. Building 92 is an architecturally significant site that will serve as a learning space for the public. I guess my thought is that, while the preservation of Building 92 is certainly entangled in the politics and emotions of Admiral’s Row, we also cannot lose sight of how positive the restoration project will be.

Note: I was quoted in the Daily News this morning based on an email response I gave to the subject of Building 92 vs. Admiral's Row. As typical with quotes in short articles, it was out of context. And, I might note, Red Hook is not located near the Navy Yard. Here was her question and my full response:

Daily News:The Navy yard just announced today that they will convert an old building (92, near the Cumberland St. entrance) inside the yard into the BK navy yard museum and then build an adjacent building to house three non-profits.

However, while they're preserving this historic building, they're still planning to go ahead and knock down all the admiral's row houses to make way for a supermarket, as soon as the federal govt. transfers the ownership of Admiral's Row to the city. With that said, I was wondering how you feel about this whole thing.

Me: Our names are Alexis Robie and Corie Trancho-Robie. We live in Red Hook, Brooklyn. We have been documenting Admiral's Row through photographs and interviews since 2004. Our goal for the project was to create a living history of the buildings and the people who lived within them that would survive, even if the physical buildings did not.

It is incredibly saddening to us to know that the Yard plans on demolishing the houses, however I'm not sure that one can compare the two sites on an even plane. We are not historic preservationists or engineers and therefore do not have the technical knowledge to assess the true condition of the the Admiral's Row houses. However, having been inside both Building 92 and the houses, I can say that 92 appears to be in better condition to begin with, which probably made it easier for the Navy Yard to find funding for its preservation. I would find more fault with the Army Corps of Engineers for letting the houses sit uncared for for twenty years than I would with the Navy Yard. Ultimately, we would hope that someone could devise a financially feasible happy medium for Admiral's Row- one that involved a strong plan and funding structure for the preservation of the homes as well as a plan for that development giving back to to the surrounding community in some way.

Posted by callalillie at November 8, 2007 7:34 AM | City Life , History , I Love Buildings

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