End of a Fairy Tale?

Upstate N.Y. Castle Collapses


Bannerman Castle in March 2010

Credit: Rob Yasinsac

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.

The residence house's restoration as a visitors center is scheduled to begin this summer.

Credit: Bannerman Castle Trust



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.

Follow the Bannerman Castle Trust on Facebook

In the area? Visit Kykuit or Lyndhurst, two National Trust Historic Sites on the Hudson River.

For more photos, stories, and tips, subscribe to the print edition of Preservation magazine.

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Submitted by MJBannerman at: October 20, 2010
I think any historical artifact should be preserved for generations to come. It is a shame to see it crumbling. It is a piece of important history.

Submitted by Sam at: August 24, 2010
Whenever I catch a glimpse of Bannerman's Island, or just hear the name, I recall fondly the story of my father, a doctor in Beacon NY, who in the 1930s was rowed out to the island to deliver the only baby ever born there. As noted in an article in the Poughkeepsie Journal in 1970, "That's really a house call."

Submitted by ixboat at: August 18, 2010
I'd be glad to volunteer my services in the area of 3D modeling of this structure, as it currently stands, or as it was at some point in the past. 3D models that could be viewed in Google Earth might help with: - planning - visualizing the past condition - education of the public - what-ifs for preservation options I'd need photographs to work from, and would of course credit photographers in full. Please let me know if this might be of use... ixboat AT gmail DOT com http://steamboat3d.com/ http://sketchup.google.com/3dwarehouse/search?viewer=1381826372105861793548951&scoring=m

Submitted by Spoonbetty at: August 17, 2010
I lived in Cornwall-on-Hudson for years with a veiw of Bannerman's Castle. It was amazing to look at the river and see that every day. Incredible. It needs to be saved!

Submitted by Lady J at: August 17, 2010
I agree with TimeTraveler. All historic buildings should be preserved and this one is definitely worth it. How about some major contributions from corps. in NYC whose CEOs get tens of millions in bonuses each year???? Surely they have funds they can spend on "enlightened donations."

Submitted by Scotorum at: August 17, 2010
Convenient that this story never mentioned that Bannerman was a dealer in Civil War surplus mainly including guns, which anti-gun Schumer might find rather embarrassing to support. Perhaps he already knew the administration, being so anti-American history except for the history of alleged discrimination, would unfund the Save America's Treasures program anyway.

Submitted by toyo at: August 17, 2010
lets keep our history alive

Submitted by Native Up State at: July 22, 2010
Whether you agree with the history of Mr. Bannerman and the island and how he did things or not or if it is a real castle, it is all a part of the history and mystery of the Hudson Valley. Some question if is a realy castle. What is a real castle? Deifne please. And the people who say 50 miles from NYC is not upstate, then what is it? Anything north of the armpit of NYC is upstate. I love the place and it's importance in the history of the Hudson Valley. It's history may not have been extremly significant in the 20th century, but it is history. Amazing how people want to re-write or erase history because it doesn't meet thier ideals. History is History. Historical Places are Historical Places. This is a great place and it and it's history must be preserved!

Submitted by verteran at: April 11, 2010
I live across the river from the castle in Cornwall, NY. As much as I love the castle, sometimes the reality is that we can't save everything. Much has been said about saving histoic sites everywhere. In this case conservation should be the emphasis. not Restoration. I have often seen the fundraisers listed as events to restore the castle. Similar fund raisers are held on COnstitution Island. But the truth is these organizatios do not own nor do they spend money to preserve these sites. The intentions might be honorable, but reality is that ACTIONS speak loader than words. Actually do something for the site. Not just tea parties!

Submitted by Robert at: April 11, 2010
I live near the River and have paddled my boats to this Island many times. It is interesting and so is the history of the family selling copies of the chain that crossed the Hudson at West Point by a two or three link length. The truth is that they were manufacturing fake chain links down by NYC and selling them to unknowing clients all over the USA. Real Castles are in the Thousand Islands. This poorly constructed mess is better as a story and a pile of debris! Let it die the guy was a crook!

Submitted by Gentilly at: April 9, 2010
In a book called "Civil War Guns" by William B. Edwards there is a chapter on this structure,which he visited.It was not very well built to begin with,and was showing signs of failure prior to 1962.Bannerman used cheap cement that an arms smuggler had tried to use as a cover in which to smuggle cartriges to Latin America. He was caught,his goods confiscated, and Bannerman bought all of it from the government.The cement he used to build the castle.Edwards referred to the structure as "tottering" when he visited it. It is amazing it lasted this long.Edwards also mentioned that to build the complex, Bannerman sank barges loaded with Civil War artillery shells to form a foundation.

Submitted by Anonymous at: April 7, 2010
It's encouraging that Americans are trying to restore old ruins when so many have been destroyed - how can we put in a preservationist mind-set in our govt. though with pounding the Middle East with apocalyptic destruction? (Makes me cringe)

Submitted by timetraveler at: April 7, 2010
All the money for sports but so little for culture...We pay millions for grown men to run around in their underwear and bounce rubber objects. We don't building things like this anymore--at least people with money once built great things now it is all about self. Truely the end of a great building and.. the end of a great country...wake up before it is too late

Submitted by Beeze at: April 7, 2010
Bannerman's Island has always held a special place in my heart. Growing up just 80 miles north of there, I always looked for it when I took the train to New York City. I am sorry that we are losing one of the great American architectural treasures, I will keep the memories of Bannerman's always.

Submitted by Kaiyaque at: April 6, 2010
In 1974, I was part of a group of Boston University students who traveled down the Hudson River from Mt, Marcy to the Battery. We stopped off at Bannerman's for several hours of exploration. It was amazing. There was a huge pile of rusted Civil War-era bayonet sockets in the courtyard. I gad been fascinated by Bznnerman's as a child, as my father collected antique weapons and had a catalog from the 1940s. He had several items from them, including 2 of the original boarding pikes from the Constitution. We went to the last little store of what had been the largest private arsenal in the world on the South Shore of Long Island in the mid 1960s. Sorry I am that it has fallen into near total ruin.

Submitted by oldwoodboats at: April 6, 2010
An "upsate" castle? Only fifty miles from NYC? Give us a break! Try The Heart Castle in the Thousand Islands for areal "upstate" castle.

Submitted by STARCHY at: April 6, 2010
its kind of ironic that the author mentions the Esquire fashion shoot. If you click the link you will find photos of a zombie pretty boy wearing ridiculously expensive clothes, playing the "fantasy" role of some hedge fund/ banker/ mogul, with a hot wife and even hotter secretary/mistress. He "has it all" (and you can too!). Grab grab grab. Meanwhile our nation, and its buildings, crumble before our eyes. No money for that - all we got here is greed and the "new" American Dream...

Submitted by Engineer George at: April 6, 2010
For the last 80 or so years I have been fascinated by this island castle while sailing past aboard one of the Hudson River Day-Liners. I only wish I could affor to assist financially since it had conjured up so many fantasies over the years.

Submitted by Jon at: April 6, 2010
In my own opinion, this "castle" is not worth preserving. It may appeal to the inner child who fantasizes about castles and knights, or for fans of ghost stories, but there are so many more significant and historic places... and so little money.

Submitted by Tyler at: March 30, 2010
When I visited Cape Cod with my grandmother in September on a bus tour, we crossed the Hudson and I could see the castle from the bridge. It was a very special moment for me, as I was the only one who knew what it was, or who was paying attention. To see that it has fallen makes me sad - it's history is so interesting!