From the (1939) WPA Guide to New York City:
The United States Navy Yard, Navy Street, Flushing and Clinton Avenues, better known as the Brooklyn Navy Yard, skirts Wallabout Bay, a semicircular elbow of the East River opposite Corlear's Hook, Manhattan. (Open weekdays 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.; Saturday, Sunday, and holidays 1 to 4 p.m.; for admission apply at Flushing Avenue and Cumberland Street entrance.) This busy naval city covers a total of 197 acres, 118 on land, 79 on water, and is surrounded by forbidding brick walls with massive iron gateways.
The yard is traversed by more than five miles of paved streets, and contains four drydocks ranging in length from 326 to 700 feet, two huge steel shipways, and six big pontoons and cylindrical floats for salvage work. In addition to the numerous foundries, machine shops, and warehouses it has barracks for marines, a power plant, a large radio station, and a railroad spur. The activities of the yard in 1938 required the services of about ten thousand men, of whom one-third were WPA workers.
At the south end, facing Flushing Avenue are the officers' quarters, two-story buildings of painted brick, scrupulously neat despite their age (some were built before the Civil War), and bordered by gardens, tennis courts, and carefully kept walks. The commandant's house, oldest structure in the yard, built in 1807, is near the foot of Navy Street at the river. This three-story clapboard building, with peaked roof and encircling porches, is said to have been designed by Charles Bulfinch, the architect who completed the Capitol at Washington.
The site of the Navy Yard originally formed a segment of the Remsen estate, which after the Revolution came into the hands of John Jackson. Here he constructed a dock, and subsequently built a merchant ship, the Canton, and a frigate, the John Adams. Federal authorities purchased the property for forty thousand dollars in 1801.
Brooklyn Navy Yard is also associated with the early days of the steamboat: the Fulton was constructed here in 1814-15 from the inventor's plans. In 1890, the Yard's ways delivered to the sea the ill-fated Maine. The Yard Pontoon Service was instrumental in raising the submarines S 51 and S 4.
The most curious item in the Navy Yard is an iron cigar-shaped vessel, near the Sands Street entrance, one of the first submarines ever built. It was constructed in 1864 at a cost of sixty thousand dollars and originally called Halstead's Folly, after one of the builders. Subsequently it was given a more flattering title, The Intelligent Whale. The craft proved impracticable and was condemned in 1872.
Near the garden of the commandant's house, and at several other points, are guns and trophies captured in the Spanish-American War. At the Sands Street entrance, in the triangular plot known as Trophy Park, a simple marble shaft commemorates twelve American seamen who were killed in 1856 in a battle at Canton, China. At the base of the monument are guns seized with the British frigate Macedonian during the War of 1812, and also the iron prow of a Confederate ship captured during the Civil War.
The Navy Yard District, spreading south and west of the yard from the East River, is a shapeless grotesque neighborhood, its grimy cobblestone thoroughfares filled with flophouses, crumbling tenements and greasy restaurants. It is bounded on the west by the Manhattan Bridge; while beyond the dull waters of the East River looms the New York sky line, like the backdrop of a stage set. In the nineteenth century the region was a residential district known as Irish Town, because of the predominantly Irish population. After the turn of the century, business and industry took over parts of the neighborhood and the pleasant homes fell into neglect. The population now is largely composed of laborers from local factories and the Navy Yard.
Sands Street is the principal thoroughfare, extending westward from the Navy Yard to the head of Brooklyn Bridge. Once this street, with its saloons and gambling dens, came close to establishing itself as New York's "Barbary Coast," and during the Prohibition era parts of it were patrolled to keep Navy men away. Today Sands Street still caters to sailors and Navy Yard workers. Shop windows display outfits for sailors; bars and lunchrooms, quiet during the day, become alive at night as their customers arrive. The area north of Sands Street toward the river is crowded with industrial plants, warehouses, and factories which charge the air with their mixed aroma of chocolate, spices, and roasting coffee. Scattered among them are ramshackle frame houses--notorious firetraps of squalid appearance. South of the Navy Yard is a residential district of only slightly better character. Around Sands and Washington Streets is a colony of Filipinos; native food, extremely rare in the eastern part of the United States, is served in a Filipino restaurant at 47 Sands Street. Among the favorite dishes are adabong gaboy (pork fried in soy sauce and garlic); sinigang isda and sinigang visaya (fish soups); mixta (beans and rice), and such tropical fruits as mangoes and pomelos, the latter a kind of orange as large as a grapefruit.
The Brooklyn Navy Yard Hospital at the turn of the century . . .