BANNERMAN'S ARSENAL America's Greatest Ruined Castle Toured


Jim Kalafus

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"Oh, I SO sorry...no convertibles came back" says my nemesis, the woman at the car rental agency who loves sticking me in Chrysler PT Cruisers, regardless of what I reserve. I know what is coming and brace myself. "It's kind of like an SUV, but also kind of like a station wagon. you'll like it. It's fun." And, fun I do have- or at least as much fun a single guy can have driving a frumpy dark green faux-station... soon I have the CD player cranked and the wind roaring through my stubble, as I head north towards Beacon NY and a day spent at what is perhaps the most scenic ruin in the United States: Bannerman's Arsenal.

After close to nine months of intensive and occasionally, to be frank, depressing, research and writing, we were finally able to step back from the Morro Castle and say "Done. For Now."
We thought that it would be fun to tour the difficult-to-access ruins, on Pollepel Island in the Hudson River.

The symbolism is not lost on me~ getting the Morro Castle out of my system by touring a burned-out castle is a fairly amusing thought.

The choking humidity of last week, and the monsoon like rains of the last few days have gone, and when I meet Marty Oppenheim and Danny Land, who have been with me every step of the way on the Morro Castle project, at Beacon Station it is a beautiful fall day. We have two hours to kill before our boat sails, and explore the arts and antiques section of town ~ having a great time relaxing, joking around, and doing NOTHING pertaining to violent death at sea. Danny's particular "calling" in life is to dig out underpriced rarities in overpriced shops, and his treasure for the day is soon located~ an 1819 piece of American folk art at a (relative) giveaway price. We stop for a light lunch, and get so caught up in conversation that we barely notice our sandwiches have not appeared more than a half-hour after the orders were placed...which leads to a certain rushed quality when we DO notice, for now every spare second has been wasted, and we have, perhaps, 20 minutes to make the boat.

With no time to stop someplace reputable, I drop into a Quik-E-Mart to buy batteries for my digital. Gray market, of course. "Dura-Shell" Batteries that look exactly like Duracell, that I know will have a...shall we say...limited life.

We arrive at the boat, at Beacon Ferry landing, with a few minutes to spare. It is cool, but not cold on the river, and the crew of the Pollepel chat with us as we wait for permission to board. The staff is young and polite and, even better, the tour is lightly booked and so we will have a more one-on-one walkthrough than is the norm.
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A general view of Beacon Ferry Landing
 

Jim Kalafus

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The voyage downrivber, from Beacon to Pollepel Island is done at a leisurely pace and takes perhaps a half-hour. The tour boat is comfortable, and an uninterrupted expanse of windows, bow to stern, give passengers a great view of both shores and the emerging fall foliage.
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As the ruins come into view, one is struck by how other-worldly they look. Soft reds, golds and greys against a thick background of green foliage gives the complex a Maxfield Parrish-like quality and makes the view seem almost artificially romantic.
 

Jim Kalafus

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As one approaches the ruin one is struck by just how large the structure is. Francis Bannerman VI, creator of the Arsenal, designed the structure so that there are few exterior walls at right angles, making the already imposing structure appear truly mammoth. One is also struck by how incredibly serene the island is~ except for the lapping of the river and the considerable rustling of wind in the trees, it is blessedly silent.
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We meet our tourguides, and are given hard hats to wear while exploring the ruins. Mine is blue.
 

Jim Kalafus

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Francis Bannerman was a Scotsman, who came to the United States in the 19th century and made a fortune for himself in the scrap, and later armanents, business. The "castle" on Pollepel Island was his company's arsenal, while a smaller but still impressive mansion further up the hill served as his residence. In the 1960s, after the Bannerman family left the island, the several-museums-worth of antique armaments were removed from the castle, and in 1969 a fire, made unstoppable by the fact that the floors in the structure were made of creosote-soaked timbers from scrapped barges, destroyed the venerable building.

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The terrain of the island is craggy, and most of the cleared land has reverted to a remarkably impenetrable thicket. But as one walks towards the castle, bits and pieces of gilded age splendor dot the landscape- some remarkably intact, others slowly crumbling back to earth. One passes through a well preserved garden gate, each stone post of which is inscribed with the name of the two paths which once meandered in either direction from that point. The first of several "meditation spots" is reached~ it is now in a state of partial collapse, but an inscribed 6 pointed Scottish Star remains. From there one can turn and take in the full view of the gutted arsenal, and beyond that the dramatic northward sweep of the river.
 

Jim Kalafus

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I have only been on the island a half hour, and already I am seriously in love with the site. The arsenal has a beauty-in-death that I suspect it lacked when a living structure. The combination of red brick, whitewash, greystone, plaster, and touches of moss green, leaves the building awash in soft colors that cause it to seem a part of the landscape and not an intruder. Crumbling and spalling has left all of the edges soft, and there is an undefinable "good vibe" to the place that makes it one of the LEAST forbidding ruins I have ever seen. If a destroyed structure can EVER seem happy, or at least in peace, this one does.
 

Jim Kalafus

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Our tourguide, a smart and friendly woman named Margaret, leads us on a winding path, downhill, away from the ruined arsenal. On a plateau about 3/4 of the way down a craggy hillside, sits the recently reclaimed (from the thicket) formal garden of Mrs. Bannerman. The beds are triangular ind in a seemingly random pattern. Below, at waterlevel, can be seen the three-sided breakwater that once formed a safe swimming spot, and anchorage, for the Bannermans. Above, high atop the cliff, the ruins of the Bannerman Mansion are partially visible. A set of crumbling stairs winds up the cliff face, and midway up, a cave was converted to a meditation grotto, where Mr. Bannerman could read and watch the river.
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This is the river view from the formal garden. Barely visible at high tide, and all but invisible in this view, is one of the scrapped barges that Mr Bannerman filled with unsellable debris from his salvage business and sank to form the foundation of his breakwater complex.

The ruined gardens contain a rarity~ Pollepel Island was one of the few spots where the rare NY State Cactus once florished. One remains.
 

Jim Kalafus

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We follow a meandering path back up the hill to the ruins of the mansion. What appears to be a wall of tangled undergrowth proves to be a solid phalanx of ancient lilac shrubs, which must be breathtaking when in bloom.

One of the delights of the island is that even the NY State volunteers who work there have no idea what treasures still remain to be found as the snarled thicket is removed. A stand of rare double-blooming daylillies was recently liberated, and who can guess what else is hidden and waiting a second life.
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The ruined mansion does not QUITE have the same tranquil beauty of the ruined arsenal, but it is still a grand spot from which to take in the river view. Marty, Danny, and I pose for photos to document the day~ and the hardhats.

One can stand at the edge of the clifftop terrace and look straight down, eye of God style, into Mrs Bannerman's formal garden. And the jumble of triangular beds suddenly makes sense~ when viewed from above the garden is yet another of the six-pointed stars that Francis Bannerman tucked into unexpected spots all over his estate.

We look at two large, damaged, triangular prisms, and fragments of several others, that were pulled from the ruins of of a sun porch that once overlooked the East lawn. The prisms were set into the porch ceiling and on sunny days would have filled the space with rainbows.

NY State has promised matching funds to the Bannerman's Trust. If $350,000.00 can be raised towards the restoration of the Bannerman mansion, the state will match the amount. So far, close to $200.000.00 has been secured.

Another example of salvage dealer Bannerman's willingness to work from his own stock can be seen at the mansion. The windwos are framed with NYC cobblestones.
 

Jim Kalafus

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The tour ends in front of the gutted arsenal. It is hard to express the almost hypnotic tranquility of the site, and the very real sense of wonder it inspires.
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The juxtaposition of nature, ruin, and rebirth is striking. That certain elements of the site are "as built" while others are in the final stages of decay, gives the complex a theatrical, or perhaps, cinematic quality that one must experience firsthand to appreciate.
 

Jim Kalafus

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The photo essay is not as complete is I wish. As I walked up the hill, at the beginning of the tour, the Grey Market Dura-Shell batteries gave out on photo #6. By rotating them, I managed to coax a handful of additional shots out, but until Marty can send me files of his photos, the few are the extent of my colllection.
 
Feb 4, 2007
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Well, it appears you had a perfectly lovely-sounding trip, Jim. How intriguing ~ I wish I could have gone too.
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Is that sort-of pinky-orange spot centered in the above photo of your post 3235 the actual scrapped barge you mentioned? Perhaps it's just the lighting.
 

Jim Kalafus

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>the actual scrapped barge you mentioned?

No- but directly in front of "the pink spot's" lowest point are three small lines emerging from the water- those are all that is visible at high tide. The Hudson is salt as far North as, and beyond, Beacon, and so has marked high and low tides. Boaters trying to access the island at high tide have ended up hung up on the submerged breakwater.

>How intriguing ~ I wish I could have gone too.

Well, if you ever end up in NY, we'll take you. We are seriously considering doing volunteer restoration work in the 2008 season.
 
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This tour makes me think of Shirley Jackson's short story We Have Always Lived At The Castle or her novel The Haunting of Hill House. I wonder if she used Bannerman's Arsenal as a mental lodestar.
 

Jim Kalafus

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BANNERMAN'S GHOSTS. Marty sent me this image of the famed Bannerman Ghosts, visible through a third story window of a building in which no floors remain.
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Jim Kalafus

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This is, of course, an illusion, but the perfectly aligned ball finials can rather startlingly suggest figures looking northward uop the river.
 

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