BY AILEEN CHUMARD
At first glance, the Brooklyn Navy Yard doesn’t seem like a place to find too many stories about women. But looks can be deceiving and history can be revealing. The Brooklyn Navy Yard Center at BLDG 92 offers exhibits, tours, programs and workshops that interpret and celebrate the lives of women at the Yard, then and now. Visitors may be surprised by what they learn.
During the Revolutionary War, before the establishment of a naval shipyard here in 1801, some 11,500 American colonists died of disease and malnutrition aboard British prison ships moored on Wallabout Bay. Fortunately, American Elizabeth Burgin secretly helped nearly 200 prisoners escape to freedom. This little known story is explored in the play “A History of Launching Ships,” which returns to BLDG 92 in March after a sold-out run this past fall.
Inspired by the Yard’s archival collections and gothic tales of Washington Irving, local theater company Polybe + Seats is offering an interactive dramatization of women, real and imagined, working and living in and around the Navy Yard over generations.
Among those women featured in the play is Eugenia Ferrar who, in 1907, floated the first song over radio transmission. Standing in the Manhattan office of radio pioneer Lee Deforest, she sang “I Love You Truly” into a phonograph horn and a young naval officer at the Yard received the “voice of an angel” through his headphones. Another barrier was broken a year later when the Navy established the first female nurse corps. Nurses came to live and work at the Yard in 1919 and were instrumental in the development of physiotherapy practices. The nurse’s quarters are seen on tours of the Yard launched every weekend from BLDG 92.
These tours also take visitors to the historic Sands Street Gate, where in 1942 the first women industrial workers reported for duty at the “Can-Do” Yard. BLDG 92, in partnership with the Brooklyn Historical Society, has collected oral histories of more than 20 of these female pioneers—of the challenges they faced, the friendships they formed and the recognition they earned during this brief period of employment and empowerment.
Their stories are accessible in the resource rooms and exhibits at BLDG 92, and serve as inspiration for Reflections on Rosie. In this collaborative art installation, four women artists on the Yard today reflect on the transformation of woman during WWII.
These artists are among the thousands of women employed here in industries ranging from construction to couture, art to architecture and engineering to entertainment. Some of their work is featured in the Today’s Yard gallery at BLDG 92.
With the launch of Factory Tours, visitors may soon drop in on the studios and factory floors of some of the 40 female enterprises at the Yard.
On March 23, participants of all ages will learn to weld from acclaimed artist (and real life Rosie!) Susan Woods as part of a special workshop.
Similar upcoming programs include The Can Do Yard on April 7 and a series of film screenings by women filmmakers on April 25, May 30 and June 27 – films about women in New York and abroad challenging social expectations in order to test their limits and support their families and communities.
The success of the Brooklyn Navy Yard is built on the hard work and ingenuity of the people who work here. Women’s History Month is a time to reflect on the contributions of women at the Yard both historically and today. BLDG 92 brings their stories to light and to life. Check out www.BLDG.92.org for more information.