New York’s lost island

October 13, 2009 at 3:31 pm Leave a comment

Governor’s Island rises from a history of secrecy and war

It’s been a fortress, a prison and a military redoubt. But today, Governor’s Island begins the next phase in its history as New York City’s most underutilized treasure — becoming a public playground.

After the summer season officially ends this afternoon, the National Parks Service will gear up for a long-awaited rehab of the 197-year-old Castle William. The service received nearly $5 million in stimulus funds to clear out the lead paint, asbestos and hazardous materials added to the storied structure in the 1970s. When the work is complete, rangers say, visitors will finally be allowed free access to the historic interior.

The Governors Island Preservation Corporation controls the rest of the island —150 acres and 52 vintage buildings — that sits just 800 yards off Wall Street in Lower Manhattan.

Originally purchased in 1637 from the Manahatas Indians (for two ax heads, a string of beads, and some nails) by the Dutch, the island fell into British hands and eventually become part of American territory. In 1800, New York ceded it to the US government, which turned it into a military stronghold.

By the 1990s, the military no longer had use for the island and began to cast around for potential buyers. Former Mayor Rudy Giuliani proposed setting up casinos on Governors Island and bringing gambling to Manhattan — but his plan met with resistance from other politicians who felt the lush grounds would be perfect for a housing development.

In 2003, the federal government cut a deal with New York and sold the island for a $1 — but banned large-scale commercial and housing development.

Since then the Governors Island Preservation Corporation — which has an annual operating budge of $14 million — has slowly opened up bits of the former military base to the public.

It’s next phase includes opening the Harbor School, a public high school dedicated to maritime culture, history and the environment, which will start taking students next fall.There’s also a plan to open new artist’s studios — totaling about 14,000 square feet in a north shore building — that will be open to the public by next summer. And the remaining Victorian-era buildings are slated to become homes for non-profits and educational facilities.This is the first time in two centuries that the public has enjoyed such unfettered access to Governors Island — and there are many secrets to be discovered, says historian Ann Buttenweiser.

The island is famous for hosting a dazzling array of famous faces, but as Buttenweiser reveals in her new book, “Governors Island: The Jewel of New York Harbor,” it also played a defining role in revolutionary and modern America. Among the fun facts the historian dug up:

* It was called Noten Eylant to the Dutch, Nutten Island to English speakers, and later Governors Island to the British, who used it as a residence for their visiting Governors before the Revolutionary War.

* Benjamin Franklin was the architect of its earliest military fortifications, which were blessed by George Washington.

* The island’s two historic buildings run by the park service — Castle William and Fort Jay — housed Confederate prisoners of war in the Civil War, and later German and Italian prisoners from WWI and WWII. Castle William went by the nickname “Alcatraz of the East.”

* Governors Island was the take-off and landing point of the first overwater flight in America, made by Wilbur Wright. On Sept. 29, 1909, he flew at an altitude of from 40 to 100 feet, circled Governors Island twice and landed on its drill field. He was airborne for just over seven minutes and flew about two miles.

* US president Ronald Reagan invited Russian leader Mikhail Gorbachev to a private summit there in 1986.

* Fort Jay, established in 1800, was the dominion of the island’s leaders, mostly colonels, who ran the day-to-day operations from there. The must illustrious of them may have been Ichabod B. Crane. Army historians say that during the War of 1812, Crane met a young soldier named Washington Irving. Irving went on to write “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” — featuring a young schoolteacher named Ichabod Crane.

* In 1812, work began on a fortress that would become the notorious stockade Castle William. Legend has it that a prisoner agreed to carve the seal that adorns the gateway. One day, as the stonecutter stood inspecting his work, the young daughter of the island’s commanding officer wandered under the arch beside him. Just then a heavy block of stone fell, and would have crushed the girl if the stonecutter hadn’t thrown his own body over her. His reward for the gallant act was a full pardon.

* By the early 1900s, African-American soldiers were stationed on the island, but had separate barracks. Prizefighter Joe Louis was famously photographed on Governors Island Jan. 12, 1942, as he stripped off civilian clothes and got measured for his army uniform.

* Governors Island played an early and critical role in WWI. Just 18 minutes after the US government declared war against Germany at 3:12 a.m. on April 16, 1917, its Coast Guard crews were dispatched to seize enemy ships and their crews anchored there.

By GINGER ADAMS OTIS
New York Post

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Entry filed under: Go Coastal, Manhattan, Maritime. Tags: , , , , , , , , , , .

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