Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Governors Island

A staff summer outing brought me today to Governor's Island, only 800 yards south of Manhattan. Governor's island is the longest serving military base in the the United States, beginning as a fort in 1776 after the British evacuation of New York and continuing to serve different military branches from the Army to the Coast Guard until its decommission in 1996. Later that year, President Clinton designated 22 acres as a National Monument and then in 2002, the United States donated the island to New York City "for public benefit," prohibited the construction of permanent housing or casinos on the island. Currently, the island is managed by the "Governors Island Preservation and Education Corporation" with the 22 acre National Monument run the the NPS. See the GIPEC website for more history.
See the NPS Governors Island website for the 2016 Centennial Plan for the park.

GIPEC and the NPS have plans for Governors Island to become a center for history, education, artistic exhibitions, entertainment, fine dining and open space-- in short, everything we've come to expect out of our parks all rolled into one. In many ways, Governors Island is uniquely suited to this kind of multi-purposing as it is not dominated by any single history or wilderness motif. Like all of New York City, Governors Island's only constant is change.

Castle Williams on the island's north side provides a perfect example of the effects of change on a single building. Castle Williams was built in 1812 after the British torched DC. It never saw action as a fort but instead became a prison for confederate soldiers during the Civil War. During World War I and World War II it served as an internal military prison and finally, in the 60s while the Coast Guard resided on the island, the Castle served as a community center and even boasted day care facilities. When you enter the Castle's forboding central enclosure, it is not hard to see why that experiment was short lived. The Coast Guard "brats" had more success using the fort annually as a haunted house on Halloween. Experiencing the Castle prior to any renovation or cleaning, I was reminded once again of the power of the authentic place. It was extremely easy to imagine the dreadful lives of the confederate soldiers, crammed into cells and whipped by the bitter breezes off the Hudson bay, mocked by the cries of the seagulls. Our tour guide enlightened us with two tails of escape-- it was not hard to swim to Manhattan if the opportunity was available, but most soldiers were not so lucky. At the peak of the Civil War, the death toll in both Confederate and Union POW jails was extremely high. See Andersonville National Historic Site and Elmira Prison Camp.

Dominated by Castle Williams and rows of quiet officers' mansions and empty enlisted men's facilities, the entirety of the island had the feel of a haunted college campus. This effect was compounded by the lack of people other than my company group. It will be interesting to see whether large-scale visitation mitigates the heaviness of memory that pervades the place or whether the architectural memory will prove more powerful than GIPEC's attempts to turn the place into a model park for the 21st century.