There's mostly sadness left now at the David Taylor Research Center, some lingering bitterness, and nostalgia.
The Annapolis lab, once Anne Arundel County's third-largest employer and the site of some of America's leading naval research, will shut down at the end of the year. Employees, many of whom have been preparing for the closure since the U.S. House of Representatives announced the lab's fate four years ago, are greeting the site's final hour with mixed emotions. Those who are still left, that is.
Most of the lab's 640 employees have transferred to the naval surface warfare centers in Bethesda and in Philadelphia or retired. Fewer than 100 workers remain, and most of them will be gone by the end of the month.
"This place used to be teeming with people and you couldn't find a place to park," said Linda Dulin-Rodriguez, spokeswoman and 34-year employee of the lab. "The buildings are the same and the trees are the same and the grass is the same, but it's not the same because the people are gone, and the people are what made this place what it was."
On Saturday, the research center will be officially remembered for what it was--a place where engineers, scientists and mechanics developed some of the Navy's leading technology, and where employees bucked turnover trends by staying on two, sometimes three decades. The tribute for the 96-year-old lab will begin with an official ceremony at 10:30 a.m. and conclude in the evening with a dinner for retirees and former employees. Throughout the day, visitors can tour Navy ships or stroll through an exhibit of photos and artifacts. A time capsule of lab artifacts will be buried at a new memorial.
After Saturday, the photos will go into storage in binders. The buildings are being leased by the county, which eventually plans to buy them. County officials have subleased 10 of the more than 60 buildings on the 42-acre base to three defense contractors and two local companies. They plan to convert the property over the next several years into a high-tech office park, with an emphasis on maritime research and development projects.
Dulin-Rodriguez said she expects Saturday to be difficult for many people, especially those who witnessed what she described as "bleak" years after the Base Closure and Realignment Commission recommended in 1995 that the lab shut its doors. But, she said: "The sadness was a while back. What we're trying to do now is take away the hurt and pay tribute to all of the thousands and thousands of people who did really great things here."
Nevertheless, while scores of long-retired employees already have committed to the ceremony, several recent employees--especially ones who transferred to other sites--are shunning the day's festivities.
Mike Jacobsen, a mechanical engineer who has worked at the lab since 1983, said the nationwide military downsizing that claimed the Annapolis lab has left him and his former co-workers angry.
"I don't really care to listen to some Navy officers tell us how great we are, because we know what we did or didn't do," he said. Jacobsen said he hasn't yet decided if he'll attend. He's not sure, he said, whether the Navy tribute will really capture what the lab meant to its workers.
"It was our own kind of city," Jacobsen said. Dulin-Rodriguez said she and a friend recently counted 70 couples who met at the research center. It was common, they said, for someone to take a job at the lab straight out of high school or college and stay until retirement.
"When I first came here they had a ceremony, and they talked about the sense of community here," Jacobsen recalled. "I didn't appreciate it. I didn't know what it was. I do now. I know people will talk about the technical accomplishments here, but I think the people who worked here will remember the sense of family."
Yet the lab's technical accomplishments are part of what put the United States's military systems ahead of other nations, and base officials said they don't want that to be forgotten.
The lab opened in 1903 as a naval testing center with only six employees. At its peak in the 1960s, more than 1,500 people worked there.
Over the years, lab workers have worked on a range of projects, from building air-powered boats and developing special Arctic engines to devising ways to detect electromagnetic fields. In recent years, engineers developed pollution control devices such as glass shredders and plastic compressors. The lab is perhaps best known, though, for developing "silencing technology" for Navy submarines--pumps and motors that are so quiet that the sub's presence can not be detected.
Tom Daugherty, who worked at the Annapolis lab for 34 years and retired in 1997, returned for a few weeks to create an exhibit for Saturday's events. Inside what was most recently a chemical laboratory, viewers can see the lab's history outlined in photographs, newspaper articles and artifacts such as a 1930s amp meter and a 1960s slide rule. Meanwhile, Dulin-Rodriguez and others have produced a video documentary chronicling the site's history. Cmdr. Tom Buckingham, who arrived in Annapolis about four years ago to oversee the lab, said that it has been difficult to oversee its closure but that it has been rewarding to have worked at a premier Navy laboratory.
"Knowing I was going to be the guy turning out the lights, it was bittersweet," he said.