End of a Fairy Tale?
Upstate N.Y. Castle Collapses
By Rebecca Rego Barry | Online Only | Mar. 29, 2010
Last summer, a crew from Esquire magazine stormed Bannerman Castle in a quest to find a unique background for a fall fashion spread. The castle, which sits on a six-acre island in the middle of the Hudson River 50 miles north of Manhattan, was built in 1901. "It was a great location," says Nick Sullivan, fashion director at Esquire. "A bit of a pain to get to." In November, the magazine ran a fashion photo essay in which the castle grounds served as "an unlikely setting for a commuter clothing story," says Sullivan. "The house and the landscape provided us with plenty of opportunities for good shots."
Those shots are among the last ever taken of the romantic structure before it collapsed last year.
Designated a "scenic ruin" by the New York State Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation, the deteriorating castle lost most of its eastern tower and part of its southern wall on Dec. 28, 2009. Then, during a storm on Jan. 25, more of the southern wall collapsed. Only one wall and part of another remain standing.
For anyone who has seen the castle up close, this winter's toll came as no surprise. "I knew it was going to come. I knew how fragile it was getting," says Jane Bannerman, 99, a relative of the castle's builder. A talented artist, she still remembers the island as it was in the 1930s, and her paintings depict its slow decomposition.
"It's really frustrating," says Neil Caplan, founder of the Bannerman Castle Trust, a private friends group that raises funds and awareness for the island and its castle. "It's a silhouette that has been in the Hudson Valley for over 100 years; it's part of the landscape. Now it's starting to change very rapidly."
Members of Caplan's group, who visited the site last Friday, still plan to host tours of Bannerman's Island, near Fishkill, N.Y., this summer. The Parks department, which is dealing with Gov. Paterson's plan to close half of New York's state parks, is currently unable to create an emergency stabilization plan for the castle. Listed on the National Register of Historic Places, the castle is part of Hudson Highlands State Park, which is slated for closure. (That park's closure will not affect access to the island, however.)
Francis (Frank) Bannerman VI, a Scottish-born businessman, built the seven-story Scottish-style castle and six other buildings nearby starting in 1901. He had purchased Pollepel Island (now familiarly called Bannerman's Island) as a storage location for the post-Civil War military surplus supplies—cannons, ammunition, uniforms—he sold. A sign on the castle's tower once read Bannerman's Island Arsenal.
One of the island's other buildings was a summer residence for Bannerman's family: his wife, Helen, and three sons. Even after Frank died in 1918, the family continued to use the island for a few decades. In 1967, the island was sold to the Jackson Hole Preserve, which donated it to the people of the State of New York. Just two years later, a fire ravaged the island. Subsequently, the island (and its decaying castle) became off-limits to visitors.
Since 2004, the Bannerman Island Trust has been offering hard-hat tours of the island. It has offered kayak tours since 1997. Visitors must stay a safe distance (about 35 feet) from the crumbling buildings.
The castle's brick-and-cement assembly falls short of medieval construction techniques, and Bannerman used recycled materials—bed frames and bayonets—to reinforce the structure, with dubious results. The windows had been blown out when some of the stored ammunition exploded in the 1920s, and the fire and the harsh weather also have exacted a toll. "It's gone through a lot," says Caplan.
Several years ago, the Bannerman Castle Trust hired Jan Hird Pokorny Associates to design and administer a restoration of the Bannerman residence. In 2007, the Trust received a $350,000 Environmental Protection Fund challenge grant to stabilize the residence, which it hopes will become an interpretive center for visitors. So far the Trust has raised $200,000 towards the matching grant, with work slated to begin this August. Despite a benefit concert last weekend, finding funding has been difficult.
Although New York State is entrusted to protect it, says Caplan, "They don't have the money to do that."
In fact, the New York State Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation had only $32 million last year to cover "a great deal of capital needs across the system," including bridges, water systems, and sewer systems, says spokesman Dan Keefe. With budget cuts on the horizon, there is no state money allocated to the structures on Bannerman's Island.
But the damage to the main castle, says Caplan, is a wake-up call, and it's up to his group to focus on an emergency plan for the island, which he believes could be a very popular tourist destination. To raise its profile, Caplan has nominated the castle to the National Trust for Historic Preservation's list of America's 11 Most Endangered Historic Places. They're also planning more fundraisers, such as a golf tournament in July.
In January, members of the Bannerman Castle Trust met with U.S. Senator Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.), who pledged to secure emergency funds and announced that he would personally call Department of the Interior Secretary Ken Salazar to support Bannerman's grant application under the Save America's Treasures program. According to a press release issued by Schumer's office in January, "Salazar indicated that he would do what he could to help, and would have his staff work with Schumer's staff and the staff of the Bannerman Castle Trust to try to secure funding." However, since then, the current administration announced plans to eliminate Save America's Treasures. Read more about Saving Save America's Treasures
Before the economic recession, Schumer delivered nearly $1 million for the Walkway Over the Hudson project, a preservation success story in the Hudson Valley. By concentrating on the island's tourism potential—the senator calls it "a rough-hewn gem in the crown that is the Hudson Valley's tourism industry"—Schumer and the Bannerman Castle Trust might be able to give the castle a fairy-tale ending after all.
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