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. 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.

  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..

  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.

    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.

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