Naval Gazing

December 21, 2011 |  by  |  Last Light  |  , , ,

Editor’s Note: Buildings start to deteriorate quickly after being abandoned. Within a decade or two, paint starts to peel off in sheets, ivy tears at brick and termites munch wood. Water, the great infiltrator, leaves collapsed ceilings and rotten floorboards in its wake.

The recent vintage of the Navy Yard’s Mustin area housing photographed here (built from the 1950s to 1980s) brings this truth home. Most of the military personnel and their families left in 1996, with a few people remaining in their homes until 2000. Of course, time and nature received some help–not even an army of carpenter ants could bore holes in concrete block like those left by the demolition and SWAT teams that used the buildings for training.

There is something unsettling about these scenes of desertion and decay. They cannot be consigned to the safety of the distant past, like a crumbling, 19th century factory or row house in a dilapidated urban neighborhood.  Nor can they be easily romanticized, for much the same reason. The formica counter tops and brass chandeliers, the street sign that warns of children playing, the backyard swingset glimpsed through sliding glass doors belong to an era that is still very much with us. These scenes suggest the safety, prosperity and banality of post-war suburban life, and to see them going to seed is a reminder of the transitory nature of things. 

The Mustin housing is slated for demolition on December 27th, but apparently could be postponed if a bald eagle returns to its nest on the property. What would be Pennsylvania’s largest marine terminal–the state funded South Port–is planned for the site.  


Laura S. Kicey is a photographer and artist based in Ambler, Pennsylvania. Kicey is a 1999 graduate of Kutztown University, where she studied graphic design and photography. Since 2004, her work has been shown in numerous galleries and museums across the U.S., and has been licensed by such clients as Urban Outfitters, Terrain at Styers, AMC Network, Lensbaby, Philly Weekly, and Pantone. Her photographs and digital composites can be found in several private collections and have been prominently featured in print 
publications internationally. Check out her website HERE and her Twitter feed HERE.

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  1. Laura Kicey’s ‘Too Close For Comfort’ images are to be commended.
    Unsettling, indeed! Terrific investigative photography.
    The pink ‘pepto bismol’ kitchen? quite unnerving.

    • Thanks Rob! The pink and bright blue rooms were part of what I was told was a cafeteria but when I went in, things like low-hanging coat hooks and chalkboards with a child’s handwriting on them suggested it might have been more of a community center/day care/nursery school type building, built maybe in the 60s-70s.

  2. A good deal of the damage was done by scrappers. I visited this site the first time probably five year ago and actually ran into scrappers who has stole a water heater and left water pouring into a building. I did not expect scrappers in such a controlled site.

    But a note on semantics. It would not be naval “Barracks”, but rather “base housing”. Barracks would be the military buildings full of only troops like in full metal jacket. These buildings were essentially neighborhoods for soldiers and their families stationed at the PNSY.

  3. enjoyed working on the movie Jesus’ Son, which shot there in 1998.
    at :32″ of the trailer – a tough movie to work on, but a movie I really like, lots of cool phila. locations. cheers

  4. I lived in the housing on the Naval Yard in the early ’90s. Your pictures were so very haunting and nostalgic for me since I lost so many family photos that were taken here when my children were babies.

  5. Recently passed through here on a trek
    with some friends. Was disappointed to discover that almost all remnants of the community pool by the river were now gone!It used to present a haunting image of a long abandoned family recreation area.Also upon passing by the derelict housing I could not help drawing analogies with the abandoned towns around Chernobyl!Both areas look as if some alien presence just zapped the inhabitants from their homes in some Twilight Zone type scenario!

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