Newall: At the Navy Yard, a tour of the old, the new and some rare ducks

Canvasbacks sleeping in the Delaware at the naval Shipyard in December.

The donkeys first brought me to the Navy Yard. Those painted donkeys scattered all across town last summer for the Democratic National Convention.

I had to see them all for a column, and there was a lonely pair at the yard. And that's when I finally had a look around, and fell in love, about 10 years after most everybody else did.

What kept me coming back to the Navy Yard was the bench in the rickety ferry terminal - the wobbly old shack at the tip of the yard, the very southern terminus of Broad Street and South Philadelphia.

It became a staple of my runs, the objective. Make it to the shack.

So many days now I run through the early morning beauty of the yard - under the wrought-iron gates, past the rows of hulking aircraft carriers and destroyers, some pink and peach-colored in their rust, past the old barracks buildings and parade-ground grandstands, past the white-steepled chapel, and dodging the occasional family of deer, to my bench. I sit for a moment and watch the river flow before heading back.

It struck me on one of my runs last week that while I pass through this beautiful, renewed part of Philly every morning, and with apologies to the generations of servicemen and women and shipbuilders who have toiled there, I don't really know that much about the yard - other than that they used to build a ton of ships there, that Urban Outfitters moved its headquarters there about 10 years ago, and that they still make ships. Actually, I wasn't too sure about that. But they do. Lots.

So last week, I dropped in to talk to someone who knows.

"You called our donkeys lonely," said Prema Katari Gupta, a senior vice president of Navy Yard Planning & Development, remembering that old column.

She stood in one of the old barracks buildings, before a wall-sized aerial map of the yard's 1,200 acres, roughly the size of Center City. Her team just installed the map a few weeks ago. They love it. It shows how the yard has transformed in the last decade, from a mostly abandoned ghost town to a hub of new buildings, businesses, parks, a Courtyard Marriott, restaurants, including Marc Vetri's Lo Spiedo, housed in one of the old gatehouses, and Urban Outfitters' cafeteria, which overlooks the USS John F. Kennedy aircraft carrier.

"The coolest shipyard in America," Politico called it during the DNC.

A sucker for old stuff, I run past the old-timey things first.

The hope is that the yard eventually blooms into a second Center City, with the old barracks and warehouses converted into condos and new housing along the waterfront.

Wonderful. I'd live there.

As I said, I'm drawn to the old stuff.

Such as the chapel where generations of seamen and their families prayed in the soft light that filters through the stained-glass window depicting Jesus helping a sailor steady his ship in stormy seas. Now, it is home for the Chapel of Four Chaplains, a nonprofit dedicated to tolerance and the memory of four chaplains who died saving others during the sinking of the Dorchester in 1943 by a German submarine.

And the jangling of keys on the chain of Thomas C. Bacon, the yard's chief engineer, as he inspects the darkened ruins of the Receiving Station building, once a barracks, then a courthouse and holding cells. The crumbling jail cells that once held unruly soldiers don't unnerve Thomas, who has worked at the yard for 30 years. But what does get to him is the ghost that is said to haunt the widow's walk of the old admiral's residence. The admiral's wife, so the story goes, still awaits her husband's return from battle.

Then there's my bench - and the bird-watchers I find there some mornings. Like Frank Windfelder, 75, of Northeast Philadelphia, who was training his camera on the flock of ducks floating among the old pillars. Canvasback ducks, the bird-watchers said, rare ducks for this area that you can't find anywhere else in the winter in Philly but by the rickety ferry slip in the Navy Yard.

Who knew?

mnewall@phillynews.com

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