River Castle, Ever More an Apparition, Further Crumbles
Bannerman’s Castle was already an enigmatic ruin in the middle of the Hudson River, a dreamy landmark for passing train travelers and a passionate cause for preservationists.
But then in the silence of last Saturday night, a large chunk of history suddenly disappeared when the castle’s stone, brick and cement sighed under a century’s weight of weather. Overnight, two-thirds of the eastern tower was gone, as well as one-third of the adjacent southern wall, leaving a gaping hole and concern over how to stop the crumbling.
Fifty miles south, one Manhattan resident was not surprised.
“I knew it was going to happen, because it looked so frail,” Jane Bannerman said from her Park Avenue apartment. “Over the years, I have painted various stages of its decay.”
Mrs. Bannerman, at 99, is far heartier than her family’s castle. She married Charles S. Bannerman, the grandson of Francis Bannerman VI, an eccentric Scottish-born entrepreneur who owned a military surplus supply company. In 1901, Frank Bannerman began building the seven-story Scottish- and Moorish-style castle (as well as six other buildings on Pollepel Island) to store his company’s cannons, munitions, steel beams and other items. He used bed frames to reinforce the walkways, bayonets to bolster interior walls.
Mrs. Bannerman recalled weekend family trips to the island in which she explored the dimly lighted castle. The towers and turrets added a romantic charm.
The family closed the island in the 1950s, and the New York State Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation took over its administration in 1967. Two years later, a fire destroyed the interior of the castle.
The Bannerman Castle Trust, founded in 1993, raised money for a vigorous preservation of the grounds. With the parks office, it reopened the island in 2004 for guided tours. Tourists, who arrive by boat, wear hard hats and must stay at a safe distance from the ruins. That distance could soon increase.
“We know that the structures had been precarious, no matter what, and they could have gone at any time,” said Neil Caplan, who founded the trust, adding that he and his fellow board members were still shocked.
Stabilizing the castle’s shell had been too costly to consider, Mr. Caplan said, and money collected through grants and fund-raising had been directed to restore the island’s residence in 2010. “This is the only castle of its kind, and we’re losing it,” Mr. Caplan said. “This is such an important piece of the Hudson Valley. We want to save what’s there.”
Jayne McLaughlin, the director of the Taconic region for the state parks office, said that dangerous river conditions would prevent a visit to the island until next week, at the earliest, to assess the damage.
Whatever happens to the castle, archival images and Mrs. Bannerman’s paintings will preserve memories of it.
The castle was shown in the film “North by Northwest,” and in November the castle was the backdrop for a fashion spread in Esquire magazine.
Once visible on the approach to the eastern wall of the castle were the words “Bannerman’s Island Arsenal.” Much of the right section had fallen by 1970, leaving just the letters “nal.”
And then, sometime early Sunday, “Banner” dropped off, leaving one complete word — “man’s” — as if to remember the castle’s creator.
By LIZ ROBBINS
New York Times