Category Archives: beacon

Exploring the ruins of Bannerman Castle

I remember back in 2010 when I went up to Dia: Beacon spying a strange structure from the train: a crumbling castle on an island in the Hudson River. I later found out that this was known as the “Bannerman Castle” and then I wondered… can I go there (legally)? And indeed, you can take a boat to a tour there, and that’s what I did last weekend as part of a visit organized by Atlas Obscura.

The boats for Bannerman leave from Beacon, passing such wonders as an old Staten Island ferry that someone plans to turn into a restaurant on the Hudson. By the way, the area around here is absolutely gorgeous, and even me with my mild aversion to hiking was drawn to thoughts of long wanders among the lush trees. In fact, you might recognize the stately setting if you have seen Shearwater’s album Golden Archipelago, which has the Bannerman Island looming spectrally.

The big “castle” is actually an arsenal, one that was built by Frank Bannerman, a New York businessman from Scotland who solds arms and other military supplies. People weren’t thrilled about him keeping explosive munitions in Brooklyn, so he had this idea to get an island and store the gunpowder, guns, and other hazardous items here. Before that, the island had a history as a haven for drinking and prostitution, and then later a fisherman who was a relative of Henry Ward Beecher lived there with his wife, who apparently got a bit of island fever and imagined herself to be Queen Victoria and her husband to be Prince Albert.

Mr. Bannerman spared no expense in adorning his castle and island, adding in details like family shields and Scottish thistles on the walls as it underwent construction from 1901 to 1918, following a castle design cobbled from those in Europe, especially in Bannerman’s native Scotland. These have mostly been destroyed by age and vandalism since the Bannermans left in the 1950s, as well as a huge fire in 1969 and the recent event of a whole wall collapsing in a 2010 storm, significantly endangering the stability of the building. (The Bannerman Castle Trust, which does the tours on the island, is seeking to save the remaining structure.)

The remains of it loom curiously, ancient and not ancient, mysterious and playful (cannonballs and cannons are repeating accents, like if a young boy designed it in crayon). We walked through the trails of the island, learning about the history and the Bannerman family. The land is rocky and the trees are numerous, so it did offer quite a mental contrast to the urban landscape we’d just left.

The “castle” is not the only structure on the island, and there is also the Bannerman residence, where the family lived, along with a garden with a cannonball centerpiece.

There is also this bridge, which has collapsed due to age into the water, giving it a sort of Pont d’Avignon look.

And then there was the grotto, with these stairs going down steeply from the residence to a garden with a well. The well was blocked, because someone threw dynamite in it to try to expand it, which sounds like the kind of disaster that would happen if I was in the construction business.

After our tour, we took the boat back to Beacon and then the train back to Grand Central, passing by a few other old warehouses crumbling into ruins along the water, and I wondered if maybe someday I could explore there.

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Dia: Beacon

We used the July 4 holiday weekend to take the train up along the Hudson River to see Dia: Beacon, a museum in what used to be a Nabisco box factory. It’s a huge space and holds a lot of pieces and installations from the Dia Art Foundation’s permanent collection. I think my favorite part may have been the train ride. How nice to see something besides darkness when looking out a train window. Even better when it’s a river going past hills.

Dia: Beacon was only about a 10 minute walk from the train station. Of course, it was about a million degrees (roughly). I had the odd feeling that I was in New Mexico from the heat, the hills, the modern landscaping. Dia: Beacon was huge, and at first it was a shock to be in so much open space, free from crowds. Unfortunately, something about the combination of the heat outside to the stuffy museum air inside then the block line paintings that started the museum just made me feel really dizzy. Still, I saw most of the museum, including a room of Andy Warhol’s Shadow paintings and a long hall of Dan Flavin’s light installations. There were some On Kawara date paintings, a long series where the artist has painted the month, day, and year based on the language and system of the country he is in. If he can’t finish the painting within the day, he destroys it. This same artist also sent his friends telegrams that said “I’M STILL ALIVE.” There was also art by Joseph Beuys, who spent time locked in a room with a live coyote as a performance piece. He also liked to wrap himself and other things in heavy gray felt.

After the museum, we walked to the river. How refreshing to feel gravel and tall grass under my feet! I love cities, but sometimes it’s so nice to leave the pavement and heavily groomed parks behind.

We walked into the downtown area for ice cream, which I’m surprised didn’t turn to steam on my tongue. Okay, I’m exaggerating the heat, it’s what I do. We then caught the train back to Grand Central, and the steel and glass took over the sky again.