B A N N E R M A N ' S
BANNERMAN'S CASTLE is without a doubt the Hudson Valley's most renowned ruin. It is widely known and often written about. Bannerman's is the perfect ruin, right down to its location-- on Pollepel (or Polopel) Island, which is fabled for eerie happenings going back to the 1600's. The island is owned by the New York State Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation, and is closed to the public. In recent years, limited public access has been allowed through the Bannerman's Castle Trust.
"Click on image to enlarge."
THE WATERS surrounding the island are rumored subject to swift currents which it is said can make it very difficult to access Bannerman's even by boat. To the east stands Break Neck Ridge, while on the Hudson's western shore Storm King Mountain looms over the Island. The setting could not be more appropriate.
THE CASTLE was built in 1908 by Francis Bannerman to house his private arsenal. By the 1960's the place was abandoned, and was eventually acquired by the New York State Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation. In 1969, a "mysterious" fire - whose light could reportedly be seen from as far as 25 miles away-- reduced the castle to its present condition.
THIS IS ONLY the tip of the iceberg that is Bannerman's history. (More on the island's history can be found at this site, and this one, and by searching the Internet.) For years it had been my goal to visit the island. Finally on April 1, 1999, that day finally came.
GETTING TO BANNERMAN'S is a complicated affair. Obviously, one needs a boat (except on the rare occasions when the river is covered with ice). Once on the island, snakes, deer ticks, an unbelievable amount of poison-ivy, regular patrols by the New York State Parks Police and the Putnam County Sheriff and now security cameras complicate matters further.
BUT SOMETIMES, circumstances can come together and make a trip to Bannerman's possible. For me those circumstances came together with a little help from Rob Yasinsac and his friends Jim Logan and Thom Johnson of the Bannerman's Castle Trust, an organization dedicated to stabilizing the ruins for preservation as an exterior structure.
"Click on image to enlarge."
WE MET just after 6:00 near the Break Neck Ridge whistle-stop on the Hudson's east shore. After the ordeal of getting our canoe over the old footbridge, we launched and paddled the one thousand feet to Pollepel Island.
THE BUILDINGS on the island include a lodge for visitors and resident-employees, a smallish residence for the Bannermans, and of course, the castle, which actually was simply a warehouse for Bannerman's vast stock of munitions. All of these structures were designed by Francis Bannerman himself.
BANNERMAN was not a licensed architect, and the most official plans are in some cases sketches he made on the backs of envelopes. Thom Johnson doesn't hesitate to point out that there isn't a single right-angle anywhere on the island. At a time when Hudson River Mansions were designed by firms such as McKim, Mead and White and Carrere and Hastings, a design as amateur as Bannerman's surely led many of his neighbors to look at him as something of an eccentric. If that label didn't apply to Bannerman, (and it did), there can be no doubt that it applies to his island.
BANNERMAN also laid-out a system of paths around the island. Since the island was abandoned in the 1960s, these paths had disappeared beneath a growth of vines and weeds. The Bannerman's Castle Trust, through the work of men like Thom Johnson (who serves as vice-president) and Jim Logan (who edits the newsletter), has over the past few years brought these paths back to life, with hopes of one day opening them to the public.
FOLLOWING THESE PATHS, we began our exploration at the lodge, adjacent to the "Sally Port" gate. Here a missing drawbridge forced us to bypass the path via a series of narrow stairways in the lodge. Once inside the gate, one can venture into the shell of the castle itself. Here, walls of stone, brick, concrete and mortar rise five stories above a tangled mass of what was once the building's interior.
FOLLOWING the cobblestone-lined path uphill, we come to the Bannerman's private residence. Another of Bannerman's designs, this is one of the most curious buildings I've ever seen. Though like all buildings on the island the residence was done in a Scotch-castle motif, it appears in some places almost Gaudi-inspired art nouveau.
"Click on image to enlarge."
CONTINUING ALONG the path, we come upon more of Bannerman's touches, including "the Grotto," and the "Wee Bay Steps" which lead down to the island's southern dock. Past a turret built to "defend" the Island from Newburgh, we eventually find the Castle's north gate. Here one can access what we might call "annexes" to the castle/warehouse. Like the rest of Bannerman's buildings, these were built to resemble a Scottish castle, and stand today entirely gutted.
BANNERMAN'S ISLAND isn't home to the most lavishly constructed buildings in the country. Really, so me of Bannerman's buildings are rather crude constructions that verge on gaudy. But to call them gaudy would be a mistake, for this island has something that more than makes up for the lack of academic design. That something, it occured to me as I wandered the island's winding old paths, is character. Better than perhaps any building I know of, Bannerman's Island Arsenal characterizes the word character. It is something that appeals to most all of us. That's how Bannerman's made the covers of so many brochures, that's how it makes its way into children's drawings. That's why the island has attained legendary status in the Hudson Valley, and why Thom Johnson has exposed so many thousands of negatives on Pollepel Island. Most importantly it is something that we need to preserve, for true to the old addage, they simply don't build them like they used to.
To become a friend of Bannerman Castle, call 845 831-6346, or write to: The Bannerman Castle Trust, PO Box 843, Glenham, NY 12527.
UPDATE: Sadly, a large portion of Bannerman's Arsenal collapsed over the winter of 2009-2010. The collapse took place in two phases, the first just after Christmas 2009, taking the southeasterly corner of the tower building and the second on January 25, 2010 leaving only the tower's west elevation. Rob Yasinsac's photos of the aftermath (parental advisory - not for the faint of heart) can be found at this link.
© T.E. Rinaldi, 2006