Monday, September 1, 2008

Lost in the Hudson River vol. 74: Bannerman's Castle

It couldn't have been a more perfect day. A wide-open Saturday in the slowly closing August, replete with wide blue skies, beautiful breezes, a temperature floating in the low 80s, and a yellow school bus just aching to take off with its cargo of 30+ New Yorkers to places unknown. This was it: the final Going Places, Doing Stuff adventure of the summer, and as a former GP, DS leader (of the very first one, no less!) and a participant in 6 out of 8 there was no way I'd miss the final blowout. In addition, Jeff Stark, the organizer of today's spectacular, is a friend, colleague and role model, and his knowledge of the hidden, urban, rural, & superb New York is unmatched. I trust this man with my life, and throughout the course of 16 hour day there were many opportunities for those words to sing true, if not always with my life, then instead with my sanity, poise, calm, and the life of my new $700 digital camera.
We met in Queens Plaza, where Jeff introduced himself with a welcome and a warning: the Places we were Going and the Stuff we were Doing was, in some cases, highly illegal and certainly arrestable. There was to be no peer pressure on anybody in case they wouldn't or couldn't participate, IE even the coolest adventure wasn't worth the revoking of a green card and the booting out of a country. That having been said, the day was going to be awesome, occupied by 4 different artists and their 4 wildly disparate projects, all to do with the Hudson River and water and Jeff couldn't wait any longer. So we piled onto our trusty yellow Bucephalus, with the omnipresent, multi-talented, infinitely patient Marcus behind the wheel, and we were off!
First stop - a short fence hop in Long Island City and onto a pier to meet and listen to Marie Lorenz, a New York based artist who builds and sails her own canoes under the title Tide and Current Taxi. She had docked briefly in LIC with her canoe and two passengers on their way to Roosevelt Island and Renwick's Ruin, in order to give an impromptu talk on the power of currents and how she uses them in her project. She told us about how the East River is one of the largest collection of tidal currents in the hemisphere, and by using those streams to propel her boat, she harnesses nature to get where she wants to go.
Next up, a lengthy bus ride to somewhere upstate - nearby Beacon NY - where we crawled through a strategically cut hole in a chain link fence and scampered off to a swimming nook. This nook boasted a couple jump-off points, between 20 and 40 feet up, a picnic area (just a bunch of flattened-off rocks) and most excitingly, another handmade boat, painted tomato-red. This boat came courtesy of Paula Zaslavsky and her partner Dylan Gauthier, two sharp young Brooklynites who used to run the Empty Vessel Project but now work on an ongoing DIY boat building project, Mare Liberum. In between homemade peach cocktails and lunch; before and after trips in their lovely boat and a brief talk about how anybody can build their own pond-worthy sailing vessel; once intrepid venturers had had their fill of divebombing off the rocky steps into the swimming hole, Jeff announced it was time to move on. Farewell gorgeous swimming hole! We had 2 more art-water projects to hit.
After an ice cream and coffee hit in downtown Beacon, we drove until we came to a clearing in the road, and crossing through some bushes and over some very active Amtrak rail lines, until we were standing on the banks of the Hudson. Off in the distance was a crumbling shell of what seemed to be a castle. This was the big exploration - Bannerman's Castle, on Pollopel Island. And Jeff, in all his rational, madcap determination, was going to get us over there.
After a few back and forth trips via one leaky canoe, one tippy kayak and two rockin' zephyr motorboats, the majority of us were on the island, and free to wander around and take magnificent pictures of this unbelievable ruin. Really. Click ahead and see the slideshow.
The story to Bannerman is as eccentric as the building itself. Frank Bannerman VI, born in 1851 and grew up in Brooklyn, was the Father of Army-Navy stores. Inheriting a flag & rope business from his father, he realized the inherrent value of purchasing surplus ammunition, uniforms, heavy artillery, and other goods from post-war governments, and sold them to other nations, at peace or at war. At the conclusion of the Spanish-American War, Bannerman purchased 90% of the captured goods in a sealed bid, and needed a remote location to stockpile his collection. His block-long storeroom / showroom at 501 Broadway was no place for such weapons of destruction, so Bannerman purchased Pollopel Island in 1900 and built himself a castle to store his goods. The construction of the buildings took 17 years, not the least of which because Bannerman did most of the loyout & construction himself, without the use of professional architects or engineers. He designed most of it in an outrageous stylized Scottish castle style. The place is magnificent, with little flourishes tucked in the labels and signposts, as well as in the wall sconces and turrets.
Bannerman died in 1918, and his family continued to sell army supplies up through the 70s, but they sold the island and the building to NY State in 1967. Unfortunately, two years later a tremendous fire ripped through the building, which damaged most of the walls, incinerated the ceiling and made the grounds unstable for long-term visitors or tours. We were certainly trespassing, but were doing so with utmost care. (The Friends of Bannerman Island would probably have called the cops on us.) The pictures show the story better than these words can ever do. After an hour or so, after we had a few go-rounds the island, after a near-death experience in which Jean busted his head open via a too-shallow dive, it was time to return to the mainland.
Which we did. Went into town, had some pizza and beer. Visited Swoon's Swimming Cities of Switchback Sea, which had been docked up in Beacon for the night, but it really was just an afterthought. Then we piled back onto the bus and returned to New York, getting back to Queens Plaza by 2 in the morning. It was simply splendid - the entire day. Kudos to Flux, to Jeff Stark, to Marcus the driver and to all participants of Going Places, Doing Stuff.


heart wisdom said...

wow, that last photo is shocking & weirdly normal. like a david lynch movie. what an rockin' castle adventure!

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