This is Then & Now , a monthly column on the history of buildings by Adrian Shirk. Shirk has previously written about the feminist takeover of an abandoned building, the death of shopping malls, and the Robert Moses building in New York.
The Admiral’s Row houses loom over Brooklyn’s Flushing Avenue like a family of Victorian ghosts. Once upon a time, they were the homes of top United States naval brass and their relations, each building a lavish specimen of the Second Empire, erected between 1850 and 1901. With wide staircases and decorative railings and delicate French shutters, they are veritable mansions. But their regalness is marred now by steep mansard roofs long caved in from rain and snow, their every crevice strangled by ivy.
Behind them lie the sprawling three hundred acres of the Brooklyn Navy Yard, which was decommissioned in 1966. The Admiral’s Row houses, though, remained occupied until well into the 1970s—outfitted for a time with modern amenities like window-unit air conditioners and Venetian blinds. While the property is now strictly off limits, a guerilla photographer who goes by the moniker “2e” recently shot fresh evidence of squatters. His other images captured the degree of the houses’ decay, showing the feathered paint and rotting beams and fallen ballrooms, and the sinking upper floors that Curbed described as places where “entire rooms have gone missing.” Among these remnants are occasional marks of misguided mid-century renovation: Pepto-Bismol-colored bathroom tile, UFO-style light fixtures. These photos remind me that while the decay looks nearly ancient, it is the result of the elements gone wild for a mere forty years.
I first noticed the houses in the spring of 2008. They had just been slated to be razed, though I didn’t know that yet. Well past midnight, some friends and I wandered down to the East River waterfront to sit on the rocks in the old lumpy Brooklyn Bridge Park. We zigzagged back to Dumbo, skirted around the Con Edison substation, through Vinegar Hill, and around the edge of the Navy Yard. Turning onto Flushing Ave toward home, I saw them.
The presence of a thing so abandoned is such a rare occurrence in New York City that it appeared like mirage. Deep in some conversation with my friends, I glanced over the fence we were walking by and literally gasped. It was as though they’d leapt out of the darkness— whoosh —and gaped back at us like nocturnal phantoms. Moonlight pricked through a couple of windows, and I could see the broken glass, a corner of parquet floor, the edge of a radiator, and a bit of the sky showing clear out the back of the house.
That was seven years ago. The houses have been subject to development bids ever since, caught between the needs of economic productivity and historic preservation. Now, they are months away from demolition to make way for the 2017 replacement: a Wegman’s grocery store and parking lot.
But I still remember seeing them for the first time, up close, with no scrim. Staring into the otherworldly darkness of the second-story windows that night, I half expected to see, at any moment, someone emerge. My staring reminded me of a way I used to spook myself as a child: I had a collection of plastic toy insects kept in the bottom drawer of a dresser. Among them was a very realistic grasshopper, the size of baby carrot, detailed down to the little barbs on its legs. I’d hold it in my hands, frozen stiff for one, two minutes, however long it took to bring myself to the brink of believing it was real, and then, with a violent shiver, I’d pitch it to the floor. Standing before the decaying mansion, I shut my eyes, filled with that old feeling: simultaneously tempting something to life, and then refusing it.
I’d continued, in the intervening years, to make trips out of my way to walk by the row, both at night and in daylight, in a ritual not unlike visiting elderly relatives. The houses’ ability to showcase the wear of time grounded me, but also provided a continuous source of wonder in a neighborhood landscape that was rapidly transforming. While the Brooklyn Navy Yard Development Corporation had long since successfully zoned for a grocery retailer, two different bidders had fallen through at the last minute, one after the other. Meanwhile, preservationist groups kicked up dust and applied pressure on them to create a plan that made use of the old houses. While most were deemed beyond repair, there remained two hopefuls: Quarters B and the giant brick Timber Shed.
One night, I took a friend who was visiting from out of town to go look at the houses. While we were standing by that old fence, a man clicked up on his bicycle out of the dark on Flushing Avenue, and said, “Just looking for a place to take a leak.” He disappeared up the block, and we listened to the splatter of piss against a brick wall. When he walked his bicycle back to us, he asked, “You smoke weed?”
He squatted down against the fence and lit a bowl. “So, do you guys come here a lot?”
I shrugged, but my friend pointed at me. “I think she takes a lot of secret night walks.”
The man smiled. “Yeah, they’re pretty fuckin’ crazy. And no one’s touched them for a long time, even though they keep threatening demolition. I bet they’re hiding things in there. The navy, you know. Extraterrestrial sheet metal, mafia victims . . . ”
“I kind of get vertigo looking at them,” I said. “Even in the daytime.”
“Yeah,” he said. “Especially in the daytime. Especially if you see dead people anyway .”
My friend and I looked at each other. “Do you ?”
“Yeah.” He coughed a bit of smoke. “Mostly in cars.”
“No—parked cars, like, when I walk past a car I’ll see one just sitting there, usually in the passenger seat. A lot of the time they’re asleep, which is always a relief ‘cause it’s the worst when they watch you go by.”
“How do you know they’re dead, then?” I said.
“For one, I just know,” he said. “But also, how do I explain this? Their skin looks faded, grayish. Actually,” he said, laughing, “when I saw you guys from across the street, I thought, ‘Dead people?’ I mean, now that I’m up close to you I realize I was probably wrong, you’re pretty solid . You’re not dead people, are you?” He squinted at us. “Well, whatever—I thought, dead people or alive people, I’m going to say the same thing to them when I cross the street—‘Just looking for a place to take a leak.’”
Then he paused. “Do you know who’s up there right now?” He pointed into the thick blackness of a broken second-story window.
I followed his finger. Focusing on the darkness made me dizzy. I didn’t see anything—exactly—but in my mind I saw a nineteenth- century man: tall, thin, stately, in a black suit, frameless spectacles, high white collar, balding a bit, withered around the neck.
I swallowed. “No.”
“Well,” he said. “He’s a skinny dude, sort of professorial looking. I see him here all the time. I call him The Professor. His hair kind of bills up in the front,” he said, sweeping his hands over his scalp. “And he has frameless glasses.” He paused. “I think he’s the closest thing to a happy dead person I’ve ever seen.”
I’ve thought a lot about that encounter over the years. What would happen to The Professor once the Admiral’s Row houses were vanquished or, more importantly, what would happen to the man who sees The Professor? Would he still get the same feeling from before, bicycling by the same spot in the gloaming? Would The Professor still be standing there, half-happy, half-bewildered, in a suburban-style parking lot? (Must all ghosts be Victorian ghosts?) And who in the neighborhood, other than the ghosts and the seers of ghosts, cares most about the continued presence of these buildings in a day-to-day way?
When the navy packed out of the yard in 1966, several thousand people were suddenly out of work, and those people who could afford to do so decided to move away. The elevated train on Myrtle Avenue was dismantled. Bus service was limited. There were no new grocery stores. The city put the Brooklyn Navy Yard Development Corporation in charge of managing the yard’s commercial life, and for decades they struggled to bring it back to its shipbuilding glory, pre-decommission. But in the 1990s, the BNYDC finally resolved to diversify: They’ve now repurposed the Navy Yard as an industrial park, with 225 unique tenants—art galleries, book cover manufacturers, textile designers, home aquarium surplus, wine casks, window treatment makers, artificial sweetener labs, architecture offices, trucking dispatchers, glass engravers, and Orthodox Jewish men’s hats distributors. More recently, it’s also become the satellite campus of Hollywood’s Steiner Production Studios, and the site of Brooklyn Grange, the world’s largest urban rooftop soil farm.
While the development plan for Wegman’s includes ample space for cars, this is not a story of simply tearing down paradise to put up a parking lot. For the first two weeks of the hiring process, the company has committed to interview exclusively residents of the nearby housing projects. And The Brooklyn Eagle recently echoed long-held praise for Wegman’s as an “industry leader in providing good wages, paid leave, company-funded retirement plans and opportunities for education and career advancement.” They also reported that Wegman’s promised to spend “more than $2 million to recruit and train its workforce, and will utilize BNYDC’s Employment Center . . . to recruit area residents for the jobs it will create.” The company’s commitment to the wellbeing of the neighborhood is a rigorous one. As a part of the contract, BNYDC even created community participation goals for construction, making sure that “30% of the overall contract values [are] awarded to certified minority/women-owned businesses.”
Beyond all this, it has been God-knows-how-long since a large-scale, affordable grocer serviced the area, and even the ones a mile or more away are shutting down. In April, the New York Times reported that “Since 2006, two large, affordable supermarkets on Myrtle Avenue have closed, replaced by apartments; smaller and often more expensive specialty food stores have moved in to fill the void.” Back in February 2015, Slate Property Group announced plans to close another affordable grocery in Clinton Hill, which is also slated for residential development.
At times, this plan seems to propose that Wegman’s will be able to solve the complexities of income disparity and racial segregation that so plague the neighborhood. Is it possible for a grocery store, however well-priced and well-lit, to service the same people who, right now, have the time and money to travel all the way to Whole Foods in Gowanus, as well as the people who have had to make do for so many decades with bodegas that sell bananas and onions, or else take a car or pushcart, once a week for miles and miles, to the Pathmark on Atlantic Avenue? It seems a difficult line to tread, but it needs trying. And if it works, if it actually works, the erasure of the Admiral’s Row houses will not be in vain.
And as for the two salvageable buildings—Quarters B and the Timber Shed—the failure of the first two bids prior to Wegmans’ gave organizations like the Municipal Art Society of New York time to successfully fight for their preservation. Now the organization commends the Wegman’s project , and believes that “[the] beauty and uniqueness of the [restored] buildings will help make this development a Brooklyn amenity and destination.” But a destination for whom? Their closest neighbors are the approximately 10,000 residents of the Ingersoll, Farragut, and Walt Whitman Houses. Do they care about naval history? Will they be nourished by its preservation? Will I? If the whole historic preservation movement has been tied to cultivating a national or civic identity, a narrative to live by, then the narrative of these houses seems to actually be the decay itself.
We live in an urban landscape which sanitizes our losses, which does not encourage us to remember. I think, in the end, what’s hard about seeing the Admiral’s Row houses go is that ruins give you sense of living in a place where time has passed, where time’s passing has mattered —so much so that we are willing to live with evidence of its death, unmolested. And their disappearance serves as a reminder, to anyone watching, that this will happen to us all, and all of our homes one day. And that the rents will go up. And that the The Professor, and all the brass that’s moved in and out of the Admiral’s Row houses, and those people who’ve moved in and out of the Farragut and Ingersoll and Walt Whitman houses, will remain unnoticed and unremarked on, in life and in death.
My mother was visiting me in Brooklyn last spring, and I took her on a long walk that brought us by the Admiral’s Row houses. I couldn’t believe I’d never shown her before, I kept saying. I knew she was going to love it. But when we turned onto Flushing Ave, I could see from across the street that the feeble, rusting iron gate I once leaned on to look at them had been replaced with a ten-foot-high construction fence, made of particleboard, shielding the houses from view. There were also more onlookers than I’d ever seen at one any time before—joggers, strollers, other people with their moms. Maybe they’d always been there. I tried to explain to my mom how shocked I was about the fencing, how much she was missing, how much more dramatic the houses used to look when they rolled up right to the sidewalk, with their broken front doors ajar. She nodded and listened and walked along the fence as I trailed behind her complaining, “Oh, you should have seen . . . ” or “this doesn’t even compare . . . ” There were just a few scratched portholes built into the particleboard for passersby, and then those ragged rooftops peeking from above.