It is an increasingly rare thing in New York City to be able to stand inside the ruined remains of a century-old building and look out over a wild forest. In the Brooklyn Navy Yard, the slow collapse of Admiral's Row over the past 40 years has created a unique hidden landscape, obscured behind fences and walls, covered in weeds and ivy. Used as naval officers' housing for over a century before being abandoned in the 1970s, these historic homes along Flushing Avenue have been wrapped in red tape ever since, despite the best efforts of a cohort of preservationists. It may finally be time to say goodbye, as the plan to tear them down moves towards completion.
Many abandoned landmarks around the city have been swept up in the current development boom, and Admiral's Row, while never declared an official New York landmark, is part of this wave of projects. The Brooklyn Navy Yard Development Corporation announced in May that almost all of the 11 structures along the row would be replaced with a 74,000-square-foot Wegmans grocery store, the first in New York City. For community activists, it is the end of a long battle, with no reprieve in sight. "These were publicly owned, publicly built, protected historic properties that the government decided to get rid of," said Simeon Bankoff, the Executive Director of the Historic Districts Council. "If the city wanted to save them, the city would save them. They wouldn't need to be landmarked. And conversely, landmarking isn't going to save them, because the city wants to demolish them."
Although reactions to the announcement of this "cult" grocery store in the press were largely enthusiastic, the plans for Admiral's Row are by no means a victory for the neighborhood. "I like Wegmans as much as the next guy, but come on, we are losing something here," said Bankoff. "And you know what? They could still build the Wegmans and leave those buildings there, because they are not tearing them down for the Wegmans. They are tearing down those buildings for a parking garage." For many years, the Historic Districts Council, working with an alliance of preservation groups and neighborhood activists, fought against the Navy, the National Guard, and the city in an unsuccessful attempt to save the row from demolition. Two buildings will be preserved because of their efforts—the Timber Shed and Quarters B—but the rest are now slated to be flattened by wrecking crews. "I haven't gone down there recently. It depresses me too much," said Bankoff. "Watching them rot was incredibly painful, because all it would have taken was a few people stopping being bullheaded, and they could have become useful, interesting parts of the neighborhood."
Nature has been increasingly unkind to these 19th century buildings during the lengthy negotiations about their future. Once enticingly visible from the street, they have been hidden behind a tall construction fence for the past few years, yet remain in the same splendorous state of utter dishevelment that previously transfixed the neighborhood and lured in curious visitors. During an exploration in 2008, the houses were found to be wide open to the elements, but with interior details intact, including chandeliers, wallpaper, plasterwork, bathrooms, and kitchens. The relentless pressures of winter snow and falling trees have now crushed many of these features into rubble, and in 2009, heavy summer rains caused the collapse of Quarters C, the second oldest building on the row. Today, the encircling forest has risen far above the buildings, all of which have lost roofs, floors, walls, and windows over the past seven years. If left to their own devices, it is not clear how long these homes would remain standing.
Though largely invisible to passing motorists, the stately shells along Admiral's Row still elicit surprise and curiosity from pedestrians, who routinely poke heads and cameras through the broken windows of the surrounding construction fence. Despite efforts to hide the buildings, they continue to be a powerful, unexpected presence along an otherwise nondescript avenue. "They are totally unique things in an area of Brooklyn that is pretty unlovely," said Bankoff. "There is a lot of writing about the importance of ruins and the persistence of memory. Any remnant of these things helps tell the story of the Brooklyn Navy Yard, its connection to the water, its connection to our armed forces… as long as people keep talking about them, they are still serving a purpose." Soon, though, Admiral's Row may only live on in words, memories, and photographs, as its decline is cut short by developers. "Of all ruins, possibly the most moving are those of long-deserted cities," wrote Rose Macaulay, in her seminal 1953 book Pleasure of Ruins. "Their forsaken streets grown over by forest and shrubs, their decadent buildings, quarried and plundered down the years, gaping ruinous, the haunt of lizards and owls. Such dead cities stir us with their desolate beauty."
The 11 residential buildings on the Admiral's Row campus have been completely overgrown by ivy and trees. The front steps of Quarters K and L are almost unrecognizable.
A pay phone, fireplace, sinks, chairs, and other debris have been dragged out of buildings and left in the overgrowth. Small footpaths lacing the area hint that the buildings are frequently visited.
Some building interiors are still in relatively good condition, despite being exposed to the elements for decades. The entryway of Quarters D still has stairs, floors, moldings, and windows somewhat intact.
A staircase in Quarters H is covered in debris left by a squatter who once lived in the building. "They built those things to last," said Bankoff. "You could still save them."
Peeling paint, floors with holes, and crooked doorways are some of the lesser problems found inside the houses today. Feral cats, birds, and other wildlife have made them their home.
On the buildings' upper levels, entire rooms have gone missing over the years, though the exteriors of the buildings remain intact.
Snow, rain, and falling tree limbs have caused walls and windows to cave in. Vines and soil have entered the premises, blurring the boundary between interior and exterior, nature and fabrication.
The back end of this building has sheared off into the woods. Few pieces of graffiti can be found inside the buildings, which have largely been untouched by humans in 40 years, providing a case study in urban entropy.
"On the day after humans disappear, nature takes over and immediately begins cleaning house—or houses, that is. Cleans them right off the face of the Earth," writes Alan Weisman in The World Without Us.
"Even where the glass is still intact, rain and snow mysteriously, inexorably work their way under sills," writes Weisman. "As the wood continues to rot, trusses start to collapse against each other."
"Eventually the walls lean to one side, and finally the roof falls in," writes Weisman. "Your house lasts maybe 50 years; 100, tops." After 40 years of abandonment, many of the Admiral's Row homes appear to be near collapse.
The ruined Timber Shed is one of the only structures here that will be saved. Even in its current roofless condition, it is an important historic relic. "The Timber Shed was a complete find," said Bankoff. "We found out it was the only remaining brick timber shed in America."
The interior of the shed is being supported by a forest of wooden braces. In its previous life, the structure was used to dry out the masts of boats built in the Navy Yard.
Quarters B, with most of its interior intact, is the only other building that is scheduled to be preserved on the row. It has been recently boarded up to protect it from nature's further intrusion.
An interior view of Quarters B from 2008, revealing some of the architectural details that remained. This will be the last residential building left standing on the row.
Many of the buildings were in much better shape in 2008, with even fragile artifacts like wallpaper, curtains, and lighting fixtures left in place.
"When I was in there last, there was still a pool table on one of the floors," said Bankoff, who visited the buildings in the mid-2000s. This third floor landing, as seen in 2008, was in remarkably good condition.
A relatively intact kitchen, during a visit to the row seven years ago. "In 2008, they were in bad shape, but they were salvageable until two or three years ago, when we had that horrible winter," said Bankoff.
Today, most of these same rooms have collapsed. There is no sign of the pool table. A kitchen sink has fallen out of one building, landing in the backyard wilderness.
Few artifacts remain from the many families who once called these structures home. "People lived in those buildings until the late 70s," said Bankoff. "Admiral's Row was on the National Register of Historic Places."
Even the dense foliage will soon be stripped away. "Originally, it was supposed to be a parking lot, which was hard enough to take," said Bankoff. "But they are actually building a parking garage and knocking down these historic buildings for that."