25 September 2011

The Ruins of Bannerman's Island

Quite how unlucky can one building be? Abandoned, neglected and decaying, at first sight you may think that Bannerman’s Castle is located in Europe, perhaps a Scottish remnant from the days of the lairds or a site in Ireland forsaken by retreating British aristocrats. Yet the Castle, sitting blithely upon Pollepel Island is only 50 miles north of New York City, on the Hudson River. Its history is a long and strange catalogue of disaster.

Bizarrely, it isn’t even a castle. What you can see here are the remains of an abandoned military surplus warehouse.

The fact that it was built in the style of a castle says much for the eccentricities, not to mention wealth, of its builder, Francis Bannerman VI (seen left).

Yet from the moment it was built the castle was, so many maintained, doomed.

What was designed to be a testament to and record of the wealth and power of a single interview was to befall no less than four disasters. In little more than a century it would fall in to complete ruin.

The island, according to Native American lore, is inhabited by unfriendly spirits. It is true that its story might indicate more than the average share of bad luck and not beyond the imagination to speculate that vengeful spirits have caused its decline and fall.

Bannerman had arrived in America in 1854. An immigrant from Scotland, he had grown immensely rich from selling military surplus. The Spanish-American war of 1898 was particularly good to Bannerman – he managed to acquire 90% of the Spanish military equipment abandoned in their hurried retreat from Cuba.

However, his storerooms in the heart of New York City were considered too dangerous a place to hold more than thirty million Spanish cartridges. Were they to explode they would destroy several blocks in an instant. He began his search for land upon which he could build his new warehouse.

It wasn’t long before he found the final destination for his military surplus.  The island, six and a half acres of rock and a thousand feet from the shore of the Hudson, was perfect for his plans. Bannerman bought the island in 1900 – his aim to construct an arsenal in which to store his munitions until they could be sold (often by mail order) to both the military and civilians.  The following year the project began – Bannerman designed the buildings (including a small mansion for himself and guests) and then allowed those constructing them free range with architectural interpretation. Yet why such a design?

The answer was simple – advertising.  In this gilded age, magnates were celebrities and Bannerman aimed to use his castle as a huge, brick built, advert for his business. The castle was clearly visible from the shore and Bannerman instructed the builders to cast the legend – Bannerman’s Island Arsenal – in to the wall which faced both the shore and passing shipping.

Bannerman’s death in 1918 marked the beginning of the end for his business, his castle and the armaments within (not to mention the accompanying Big House - seen below).  Construction stopped and two years later several hundred pounds of shells and powder exploded – this destroyed half the building. It was thought that the explosion had been caused by lightning hitting the flagpoles. Locals must have regarded each other knowingly – the spirits were reasserting themselves.

Worse was to come. In 1950, a passing freighter, the Pollepel, was caught up in a huge storm on the Hudson River. It smashed in to the island during the full force of the storm, exploding on impact.  The explosion did even more damage to the building – and the ill fated boat gave the island its modern name (though many still call it Bannerman's Island).

Two disasters to beset the same building might be considered unlucky, but worse was to come. After the 1950 disaster the house was left vacant and it and the island were eventually bought by New York State in 1967.  Two years after this a major fire broke out and the roofs and floors were completely destroyed – the rest of the building was then effectively unsafe to enter. The island was placed off limits – the spirits had perhaps finally had their way.

Not quite.  Although difficult to get to, the castle and the Big House occasionally played host to small groups of hard-hatted tourists.  Vandals and trespassers continued to ensure its decline but it was years of exposure to the elements that was to deliver another blow. In 2009 about 40% of the front wall and 50% of the east wall collapsed.

The castle is, obviously, beyond restoration now and that is perhaps how it should be left, to slowly moulder in to dust. Maybe it is best abandoned - returned to the spirits to reclaim their home and be left, finally, in peace - a testament to impermanancy and the inexorable nature of entropy. Until then, it makes a beautiful site to explore with a drone camera.