Naval maneuver! New maritime history museum looks forward and back

Naval maneuver! New maritime history museum looks forward and back
Photo by Paul Martinka

The Brooklyn Navy Yard’s new museum and visitor’s center is as much about the history of what was once the center of American shipbuilding as it is about its even-brighter future.

That much is evident from the moment you enter the sparkling new, environmentally pimped-out, $25-million visitor’s center on Flushing Avenue near the Cumberland gatehouse.

The roof collects rainwater. The heating system is geothermal. The construction materials were sustainably harvested. It’s as if the building itself is saying, “This is not some dusty attic.”

And the attention to the Navy Yard’s modern role as a business incubator is apparent even as its 210-year-old history is on display.

Just inside the front door, for example, hangs a 22,000-pound anchor from the USS Austin, a fitting symbol one of the last warships built in Brooklyn. Near that dead weight is a wind-powered light pole developed by current Navy Yard tenant Baldev Duggal — a modern invention that can provide illumination even when the city’s power grid is off-line.

Other 21st-century, Yard-made products — such as military grade Kevlar vests, precision guided parachutes, packages of Sweet’N Low and lamp shades — are right alongside the artifacts from the area’s 400-year history as a naval center.

“The Yard itself has been a mystery to people,” said Brooklyn Navy Yard President and CEO Andrew Kimball. “We’re going to allow people in and they’re going to be able to experience this unique and fascinating story of history and modern reinvention.”

The stunning addition to the Navy Yard campus features a restored Building 92, plus a modern wing.
Photo by Paul Martinka

Of course, this is a history museum at its very heart, so the ship-building center dating back to President John Adams’s executive order in 1801 forms the core of the exhibits.

There are scale models of USS Ohio, the Yard’s first warship, and the USS Maine, whose sinking in Havana in 1898 precipitated the Spanish-American War.

Also on display is the steering wheel of the USS Bennington, which fought in the Pacific during WWII and was famed for having defeated the Japanese super-battleship Yamato.

On the civilian front, a whiskey jug from an illegal 1869 Vinegar Hill distillery sits in an exhibit that details the brothels and saloons that built up around the Navy Yard.

One of the coolest features is a naval telephone that offers oral histories from some of the millions of working men and women who toiled at the Yards. The stories are being collected into a huge database of stories and facts.

“It’s like genealogy.com meets Facebook,” said Kimball.

Brooklyn Navy Yard Center Building 92 [63 Flushing Ave. between Cumberland Street and Carlton Avenue in Clinton Hill, (718) 852-1441]. Free. Open Wednesday through Sunday.

A centerpiece of the exhibit is an anchor from the USS Austin, one of the last ships built in Brooklyn for later duty in Iraq.
Photo by Paul Martinka