BOD #8

Archtober Building of the Day #10: Naval Cemetery at the Brooklyn Navy Yard

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Archtober Building of the Day: Naval Cemetery Landscape (Max Touhey)
Archtober Building of the Day: Naval Cemetery Landscape (Max Touhey)

This story is part of a monthlong series of guests posts by AIA New York that feature Archtober Building of the Day tours. See the full 2017 schedule here.

Archtober isn’t just a program for buildings, it’s also for landscapes. The Naval Cemetery Landscape is one of several landscape architecture projects featured this year. The site was designed as a natural area populated exclusively by native plant species to provide a respite from the nearby Brooklyn-Queens Expressway (BQE), warehouses, and the Brooklyn Navy Yard. It was created by Nelson Byrd Woltz Landscape Architects with Marvel Architects.

The walkway at Naval Cemetery Landscape. (Center for Architecture)

Nestled on a site that lies between communities and roadways, the Naval Cemetery Landscape is something that is more readily stumbled on then sought out. Built for access from a bike artery, the Brooklyn Greenway, the site provides a natural stopping point for cyclists, bees, and birds. It is also a processing place for stormwater. A delicate touch was needed for every element of this project because it sits on hallowed ground: over 2,000 patients from the adjacent Navy Yard Hospital were buried there between the 1830s and 1920s. In 1926, the known remains on the site were exhumed and reinterred in the Cypress Hills National Cemetery. In the postwar era the original site was reborn as a ballfield, but after a human bone was found during practice, the land was sealed in the 1970s and became overgrown with invasive mulberry and mugwort in the intervening years.

Natural details at Naval Cemetery Landscape (Center for Architecture)

The site was redeveloped as part of the Brooklyn Greenway’s plan to develop a series of calming oases-like nodes along the path that extends from Greenpoint to Red Hook. The land is still owned by the Navy Yard, and the Cemetery Landscape is one of the few publicly-accessible sites within the vast complex.

A grasshopper at Naval Cemetery Landscape. (Center for Architecture)

Because of the site’s sensitivity, no digging could be done. A natural meadow was planted on the surface of the land with help from Larry Weaner Landscape Associates (specialists in Northeastern meadow habitats), and the undulating boardwalk that loops around the park sits on diamond-shaped footings that are pinned, not dug, into the ground. Two caretakers help keep invasive species out of the meadow and interpret the site for visitors. They work out of a small structure that leads visitors into the boardwalk, and frames the landscape behind it when the site is closed. It is open on Wednesday through Sunday from 8:00 a.m. to 8:00 p.m.

The Archtober group. (Center for Architecture)

The project was funded in large part by the TKF Foundation, whose mission is to bring nature into urban areas. The Foundation also provided funds for a social scientist to study the process. As groups from Brooklyn’s Green School have been watching the park takes shape, a researcher has accompanied them on their trips. TKF also placed a bench along the boardwalk, with a visitors’ booklet stored inside. Numerous entries in Yiddish and English are a testament to the Cemetery Landscape’s evolving use and to the diversity of its surrounding communities.

Stone blocks at Naval Cemetery Landscape. (Center for Architecture)

Join us tomorrow at the Cathedral Church of St. John the Divine.

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