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Urban Environmentalist NYC: The Commandant’s House (Brooklyn Navy Yard) Revealed

February 26th, 2009 · 8 Comments

[Commandant’s House in snow in 1914]

One of the great things about doing tours around the city is the unexpected treasures that you come upon. One of these lies at the edge of Vinegar Hill and end of Evans Street. Traveling the streets of Vinegar Hill is a joy in itself, the cobblestones and old brick & frame buildings bring one back to an older time in this hectic city. Passing Hudson Avenue on Evans, you come upon a huge wrought-iron gate marking the border of the Brooklyn Navy Yard. Looking inside, you can spy a beautiful big Federal-style white house—one of the most striking in the city—looking as if it belonged on a landed estate somewhere, certainly not Brooklyn. This is Quarters A, the Commandant’s House and the yard’s oldest surviving structure. It is a national landmark. Sold into private ownership in 1971, the three-story house can only be glimpsed in small bits—though the fence, from certain areas of the Navy Yard and, most completely from the East River where its broad lawn overlooking the river gives you an idea of what it once was. The land for what was originally called the New York Navy Yard was purchased in 1801. The house was built from 1805-1806. It is not known if the officer in charge of the yard, Jonathan Thorne, was there during this time.

The archivist of the yard, Daniella Romano, has said that “Thorne was later scalped by Indians in 1811 while on a campaign in the Pacific near Vancouver.” Charles Bulfinch, the architect for part of the United States Capital, is often thought to have been the designer, but this has never been verified. The extraordinarily elegant house is shown in 19th century photographs as an exquisite clapboard structure four bays wide in front and five bays deep, rising to a peaked roof with a rooftop observation deck and projecting pedimented dormers. It boasts a front porch carried on extremely slender columns, above which is another balustraded, roofless porch. The main doorway of the house is in an intricate Federal-style structure with a leaded fanlight and sidelights. The cornice and roof trim also carried delicate detailing. One of its secret delights is the rare oval dining room. In 1905 an unknown architect designed an addition on the west side, with matching trim carried around the facade. The most famous former occupant is probably Commodore Matthew C. Perry, credited with the opening of Japan to foreign trade.

The Commandant’s House, situated high on a hill above the Navy Yard, was once surrounded with lawns, terraces, orchards and teeming gardens (see 1904 photo of house with Spanish guns and Marine in the foreground). It is now surrounded by a steep fenced drop-off into the old Navy Yard and a seven-foot high brick wall, the only entrance being the locked wrought-iron gate. Instead of the gardens and lawns, the house overlooks the NYC Water Pollution Control Plant, part of the old Navy Yard grounds.

For a closer look at the secrets of the Navy Yard, join the Center for the Urban Environment’s bus tours of the Navy Yard kicking off the spring season beginning this Sunday, March 1st. Call 718-788-8500, ext. 204 for reservations or check details and register online at www.thecue.org Check the website for additional dates and other great urban tours coming up this spring.

(Ruth Edebohls is the Coordinator of Urban Tours at the Center for the Urban Environment. To learn more about the Center visit us at www.thecue.org.)

[A view of the house in 1904]

Tags: Urban Environmentalist

8 responses so far ↓

  • 1 JeDi JeSsE // Feb 27, 2009 at 6:08 am

    Wow, this is Great!
    i have to Def check this out this summer with Noah.. .

  • 2 oolah // Feb 28, 2009 at 12:53 am

    What’s with all the antique cars always parked along the driveway to this place? Is the owner some kind of car collector?

    This house is really beautiful and is so profoundly surprising in its current location. It’s sandwiched between the projects and a huge power plant, but it’s got a nice bit of private land separating it from these other elements.

  • 3 Dumbo NYC, Brooklyn » Archive » Dumbo Links Week of 22Feb09 (DumboNYC.com) // Feb 28, 2009 at 9:46 am

    […] The Commandant’s House Revealed, 26Feb09, GL […]

  • 4 Thomas Combs Proctor // Mar 1, 2009 at 7:55 am

    Enjoyed seeing this. My brother and I spent the summer of 1959 in this house. Our uncle was Commandant at the time. It was just as you described.

  • 5 charlie // Mar 1, 2009 at 10:00 am

    But who lives there now? Does anyone know?

  • 6 Joy Taylor // Mar 1, 2009 at 4:52 pm

    The words that Ruth wrote are even more breathtaking than the photos…although a picture is usually worth a thousand words…in this case, the words are worth thousands of pictures…BRAVO! Adore the story and the photos…keep them coming…after all, we are our history…

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  • 8 » Vinegar Hill House at Snackish - Cheap, tasty food and snacks in New York City // Aug 18, 2009 at 10:10 pm

    […] It’s not just the 18th century houses along cobblestoned Hudson Avenue or the Federal-style Commandant’s mansion, perched on a hill above the Navy Yard, that transport you. It’s the lack of cars and people, […]