In Remembrance of Archives Past

Meredith Wisner 5 years, 1 month ago

Drafting Room, Building 5, August 1, 1940

This photo is one of my favorites. Depicted is the Yard’s drafting department hunched over their desks busily insuring my future job security. The film’s extended exposure captures their movements – a happy accident that gives the photo an urgency felt across the whole Yard at this time. Taken on August 1st 1940, this image tells the human scale story of the US Navy hurrying to modernizing its infrastructure for its eventual entry in WWII. What was the remainder of all this activity? The answer is tens of thousands of maps and plans that detail the Yard’s largest expansion - a weighty bulk of a collection that I currently manage.

Just two years after this picture was taken the Yard doubled in size. It stands to reason that the plans you see contributed to that unprecedented growth. There was, of course, the Hammerhead Crane,which was begun in 1938 and used during the war to lift massive naval gun turrets onto some of the Navy’s most storied warships. Those turrets were assembled by hand in Building 18, itself constructed in 1940 along with its little sister, Building 68, the largest annealing furnace of its day. And that’s just the old half of the Yard. East of building 280 the Federal government took over Wallabout Market – the second largest produce market in the world– in order to make way for over 20 additional structures and the Yard’s two mightiest dry docks, Dry Docks 5 and 6. Within each of their basins the Chrysler Building could rest with plenty of room to spare.

Were it not for the clerks, librarians and archivists who preceded me this amazing cache of historical documents would likely have been lost. According to a 1945 telephone directory, W. W. Kist managed the Yard’s technical library during WWII on the 13th floor of building 77 (how I wish I could reach him at his 2043 extension).  Building 77, an ominous structure that looms windowless for 11 of it 16 floors, was once the nerve center of the Yard. It is unsurprising that this library, largely restricted to all but select staff, would have sat just a few floors below the Yard’s top administrative offices. Sadly, I have no photos of its interior (they have yet to be retrieved from the National Archives), but based upon this 1940 floor plan the library and print room took up a quarter of 13th floor, which is remarkable since Building 77 remains one of the Yard's largest structures.

It seems the early 20th century drafting department (above) was in somewhat less of a hurry when juxtaposed with its pre WWII counterpart. Their rate activity is similarly reflected in the output of the Ship Building Ways during each of their respective decades. Only three ships were built from 1900 to 1910 (the battleships Connecticut and Florida and the fleet collier Vestal), while the 1940s saw two battleships (the Iowa and Missouri), as well as six aircraft carriers, eight landing ship tanks and two floating workshops. Even during WWI ship production on the Yard consisted of just two ships, the Arizona and the New Mexico. With ship building being the driving force behind the Yard's development for 165 years, these gents and their staff librarian appear to have had it pretty easy.

In the tradition of my predecessors, my archive’s primary mission is to serve our engineering department in its efforts to upgrade and expand the Navy Yard’s capacity. The current iteration of the archive contains roughly 40,000 architectural maps and plans from about 1860 to the present day. Along with these, our next largest collection is a series of construction photos documenting Yard work from 1912 to 1945. These plans and photographs continue to inform construction and demolition projects that happen on the Yard today. In addition, they serve as primary source material to scholars interested in industrial development, Naval shipbuilding history and the history of Brooklyn in general. Though what I do here has almost nothing to do with ship building, the work is largely the same.

Post-decommissioning the archive fell into a shambles for lack an archivist to tend to the day-to-day activities required of such a place. My predecessor sometimes recounts a ghost story in which she looked up from her work one evening in 2006 to see a faint pair of shoes walking purposefully through the archive door (literally through, the door was closed). The feeling she got from the room was akin to a salute, as if a bygone officer wished to let her know that hers was a job well done. I’m not usually one for those kinds of stories, but I find this one too charming to deny. I like to think it was Mr. Kist, or perhaps some earlier compatriot, thanking her for putting this important archive back together again.