Naval Gazing

December 21, 2011 | by Laura Kicey

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.  



About the Author

Laura Kicey 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 Architectural Digest, 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.


  1. Rob Lybeck says:

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

    1. Laura Kicey says:

      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. Debra Krug says:

      None of the base housing kitchens were pink.

  2. Rob Mas says:

    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.

    1. Valerie Milian says:

      It was base housing I lived there from 1984 to 1987. The blue walls was a school my son went to, this brings back so many memories thanks for sharing

  3. dlowe says:

    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. Kim Lawrie says:

    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. Philtone says:

    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!

    1. Loretta says:

      Where was the community pool? I worked at the base and then the Hospital. 1980 to 1985. I remember a pool not far from the entrance, maybe about 5 blocks in. There was also an indoor pool too. You mentioned near the river? thanks!

  6. Conny Listermann says:

    Wow! I lived here in the 80’s with my family! Commuted to St. Maria Goretti every day for High School and then the Lasalle University thereafter. Was shocked to see these pics! I have some nice pictures and memories of this housing area when it was thriving and shopped in the airplane hanger when it was our commissary! So sad.

  7. Robbin Owens says:

    I lived here in 1976-77. Was in 2nd grade at Sharswood. Been trying to scour the internet for more information about base housing in Philly. Thanks for these pictures. I remember that wallpaper in the bathrooms. Would love to see more if possible from Simpson Court.

    1. Christine S. says:

      I lived off Kerwin Place North in 1976. Off base Military housing that very same time frame. My older brother & I walked to Bregy Elementary. What a dump back then. I couldn’t find any pictures of the area until today. Pretty cool to me.

      1. Debra Krug says:

        There was off base housing back then??? Or did you just live off base. I thought the only base housing was on base.

    2. Leslie Morris says:

      I lived there around the same time. I went Sharswood 7th and 8th grade. We live in the old barracks that were converted to apts. We lived in D-13. right next to the Navy Lodge and the little 4 seasons mini type mart. Across the street from legal hold.

  8. Christine S. says:

    I lived off Kerwin Place North in 1976. Off base military housing in Philadelphia. The red brick apartment building picture looks very simular. Trying in vain to find any photos from this era. No luck. Thanks for your photos. Very rare on the internet. Any info or leads would be outstanding. Thanks.
    We went to Bregy Elementary. What a nightmare that was! Scary..

    1. Debra Krug says:

      Bregy was SO bad. I was there about 76/77. My mom refused to let us go back to Bregy. My brother was jumped on the playground…seeing him walk down the hallway with blood pouring down his face was so horrible. We were both in second grade. We were going to be put in Catholic school if the Navy didn’t transfer us out of Philly. They did and we went to Groton, CT. We also had to leave school early a few time while cops went on the roof of Bregy as we scrambled to buses because they had word of a riot between the high school near Bregy and another school. Racial violence was really a terrible thing in Philly in the late 70’s.

    2. Cindy says:

      We were stationed here too. Lived on Wallingford Ct., must have been 76-77’. shipped to Bregy for school and can remember all the navy kids had to sit together at lunch in that old cafetaria. I also remember the wind sock and seeing a dead cat lying under it, we would check on it while riding our bikes to the commissary. Cool pics!

    3. Kari Rhodes says:

      We lived in the off base military housing shown here in north Philadelphia in 1992 and 1993. My 1 yr old son was diagnosed with Lead poisoning and they began moving everyone out shortly after.

  9. Alex Ordillas says:

    I think I used to live there during 76 – 77 time frame. I was in 2nd grade too. Does anyone remember the housing being haunted?! I used to hear footsteps and whispers at night. And my brothers bed would move…

    1. My daddy was stationed here around 86-87. My sisters and I all 3 attended Holy Spirit Catholic School. I absolutely love looking at these pictures! While I cannot remember what our exact address was, I do remember our housing unit was at the back of the base and we could see the Walt Whitman Bridgefrom our back sliding glass door. I also remember the commissary as well as both the outdoor and indoor pools. We left Philly and went to Norfolk next which was closer to our home in North Carolina. It’s super sad to see these pictures because I have so many happy memories spent here.
      Thank you so very much for these pictures! You have done a phenomenal job at capturing this little City even though it did end up in ruins.
      Be blessed.

      1. Debra Krug says:

        OMG, I remember the outdoor pool too. I was there in the late 70’s though…not sure if it was the same pool that was there when you were. The commissary was in a hangar too. We were going to go to Holy Spirit Catholic if we stayed another year, but were transferred to the Sub Base in Groton, CT. My mom refused to send us back to public school; it was that bad and I was only in 2nd grade at the time. These pics bring back so many memories.

      2. Alice Huntington “Mattson” says:

        I also lived in the off base housing.. I lived at 2168 Blackwood Dr.
        And my children went to Holy Spirit school as well..
        We lived there from 1982 – 1991.
        Great memories, but very sad to see how it was just left to deteriorate..
        My last name then was Mattson.

        1. JGL says:

          My parents moved to 2177 Blackwood Dr. from 1987-1989. I missed my friends and school so much in Jersey that i lived with my Grandparents on the weekdays and stayed with my Parents on the weekend . With that being said my Mother put me in Elementary but i only stayed for like 3 to 4 Months i cant remember the name of my School. i am trying to figure out where we sent. Sharswood looks Kinda familiar but i remember the bottom of the building`s bricks were Red. But i see that Bregy hads a Red Bottom.

    2. Georgina Marie Ellinger says:

      I used to live on kerwin place north in the late 70s ..early 80s and then kerwin place south from 84 to 86 . I agree about it being haunted I’m so happy it wasnt just me who felt that .. my mother said I was crazy. I would hear fast whispers and footsteps at night the first time I lived there . I was very little then& went to Calvary temple for kindergarten.

      1. Debra Krug says:

        I lived there in the late 70’s as well. I don’t recall the street name. We lived in like a court though…with a a big carport in the center for the cars (I’m thinking it was a carport, might of just been parking). I never recalled a haunting feeling…not saying it wasn’t there, I just never experienced it. With that said, I was in 2nd grade and still wouldn’t sleep without the light on, so there’s that. 🙂

  10. Debra Krug says:

    Wow. How crazy. I lived on this base when I was in 2nd grade. The school off base was pretty rough, even as an elementary school. It was around 1977, so times were a little rough in general. I lived in one of the houses (Duplex, whatever) pictured in photos 6-10…looked so much bigger when I was little. The commissary was in a hanger, I remember that. I also remember, riding the bus home one time and we had to wait a while at the front gate because all the gates were closed; some fool decided to rob the bank on base. Thanks for the pictures. Anyone who has ever lived in housing that is directly on the military base knows it is like a tiny contained city of its own. Everything a family needed was behind those guarded gates.

    1. Christine S says:

      I lived on Kerwin Place N., I guess It was on base. I was7 at the time, across the street was a play ground, but the highway you could see from my house. It was gov’t property, I dont understand why there was no tall fence to seperate the highway to the gov’t housing where us families lived. I would like to go back & see where I once lived. Bregy elementary was rough. I was so glad when we left. We didnt stay long. I went to school with black panther children. Their parents were in the group. It was rough during the bicentennial. It is a bit sad thinking about those days.

  11. Gloria Rawlins says:

    We lived in one of the brick two story homes from 1975 to 1977. Before they built the homes in front of our home, we could see the boats going by on the river. We lived next door to the commissary. My kids were 7 & 8 at the time. And went to Holy Spirit school. It was nice to be there and feel secure, since no one could come on base without stopping at the gate. Made me sad to see condition of homes now.

  12. Bill says:

    Lived on Blackwood Dr in the late 60sand early 70s. Remember a few fights with kids from Packer Park and Pasyunk housing. The housing was built over a dump yard and I wonder now about health issues. My parents and little sis died of cancer and my brother and I have both survived our cancer battle. Be curious to hear about similar stories.

  13. Pat flannery says:

    We Iived on Kerwin Place S., 1977. Our daughters went to Holy Spirit School. I do r recall the number but we had an end unit.

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