Usually it hurts our feelings when people say Governors Island is creepy or compare us to Shutter Island or Lost, but we’re going with it this week because ’tis the season to be spooky. We thought about retelling Megan Taylor’s self-rocking hobby horse story or the one about the baby ghost that tried to push a former collegue down the the stairs in the Admiral’s House. But if you’re a Coastie, Brat and or National Park Service Ranger, we bet you have even better ones, so we’re encouraging you to drop us a line in the comments section below. We double dare you. . .
Oldies But Goodies
As the 2010 season on Governors Island draws to a close, it is fun to look back at all the events and activities that this summer brought. While on the Island, have you ever paused to wonder how it would have been to spend a day recreating on Governors Island 100 years ago? Despite being a hard working Army headquarters, recreation did occur. Wonder no more, the following illustrates Governors Island’s lengthy history of fun!
Governors Island garden parties then.
Military drills then:
Fanciful costumes then:
Musical interludes then:
For all the exciting change on Governors Island, maybe some things remain the same…..
Governors Island visit is cheaper than in 1794 & other transportation tidbits
Yup, that’s right. A trip to Governors Island now costs you $.00, that’s $.03 less than you would have been charged in 1794 for a trip in a rowboat to help Governor Clinton construct the Island’s fortifications. Factoring in inflation, the fact that the US dollar didn’t exist, and the big improvement in boats — well, that’s trickier math than we need to do— that rowboat ride might cost you in the range of $2.00 today.
You can still paddle to the Island (if you are a Kayak owner) but transportation has improved. Those pricey rowboat rides were supplanted first by oar-powered barge ferries, then by steam tugs and finally by our beloved vehicle and passenger ferry, Coursen, which makes the daily runs to and from the Island and has done so since the early Coast Guard days.
Once you are on the Island, we’ve got bikes and we’ve got trams…but what we don’t have is a teeny tiny railroad. We once did! In 1918, the “world’s shortest railroad,” a locomotive and three flat cars on 1.75 miles of track was used to carry coal, machinery and supplies from the piers to shops and warehouses on the south island.
Thanks McKim. Thanks Mead. Thanks White
In the late 1870s a trio of architects joined together to form the firm McKim, Mead and White. The influences on their work were many but they had a taste for order and grandeur and were involved in a number of prominent urban design schemes as well as buildings. The team was behind the design of Columbia’s Morningside heights campus and they also had a sweeping vision for Governors Island.
In their vision, an entire new campus of formal buildings was laid out on the recently created south island. It retained only Castle Williams, Fort Jay, and the South Battery in the historic district. However the principals of the firm all died by the time a final plan was adopted in 1928 and much of the original scheme was abandoned.
Never the less, the influence of McKim, Mead and White is very evident, particularly in the construction of Building 400. The structure was the first permanent building built on the filled area. The architects did big and imposing really well. They were behind the sorely missing original Penn Station as well as the Brooklyn Museum, the Manhattan Municipal Building and the Boston Public Library, among others.
In addition, the imposing structures of Buildings 12, 333, 515 and 555 are all attributed to the firm. Many of the other structures were based on the original Beaux Arts plan developed by these architects.
The current and future island have much to offer; 2.2 mile promenade with harbor views, a green for picnicking, lounging and swinging while gazing at the Statue of Liberty, and a dynamic and exciting future park and open space. However, only one hundred years ago these places were part of the harbor. The original island comprised only what is now the historic district, north of the Colonels Row green. The island measured 69.4 acres, half of its current size.
At the end of the 19th century, military commanders were determined to expand Governors Island to accommodate a full regiment. Developments in Manhattan provided a way for this to occur. In the 1880s, New York City’s population boomed, creating the need for improved transportation systems. The military made arrangements with the City of New York to dump the fill created by the construction of the 4th Avenue subway, New York City’s first, at Governors Island. Between 1900, when construction of the subway began, and the project’s completion in 1912, the city deposited about 4,787,000 cubic yards of fill on the south side of the island, creating 103 acres of new land.
The initial expansion was created by the construction of a rip-rap bulkhead on each side of the proposed Island extension. The rip rap wall was an experimental engineering technique, but it was successful and the bulkhead enclosure was filled with the subway excavations and topped with a combination of clay and sand.
The increase in the Island’s size took place in the midst of a contentious battle between the City of New York and the federal government for the use of the Island. While plans to expand the military establishment on island proceeded, city officials dreamed of using the island in a host of different ways from an air strip to an immigrant processing center (a role eventually assigned to Ellis Island) and a city park. However, the military persevered and the new expanse of island was used for military staging and to house regiments.
During the Great Depression, the Works Progress Administration (WPA) was created to provide jobs for the country’s masses of unemployed. Part of this initiative was the Federal Arts Program (FAP), giving employment to countless artists and craftspeople. Many Governors Island buildings were updated or expanded as part of the WPA program, and Pershing Hall benefited from a FAP commission to Tom Loftin Johnson for murals to adorn its principal hallways.
Johnson’s 90 foot mural in Pershing Hall depicts American military history. A close look at these detailed murals reveals many notable national characters, some with particular connections to Governors Island:
A host of less well- known figures can also be found and a heap of symbolism:
Pershing Hall will be open to the public August 7-8 for the African Film Festival. Check out this excellent event and take a look at the fantastic murals while you are there.
Many GI visitors come to visit via Pier 6 in Brooklyn. This approach allows you to cavort in the new Brooklyn Bridge Park, Pier 6 playground. But for those of you arriving from Manhattan, your trip affords the opportunity to see one of Manhattan’s architectural gems.
The Battery Maritime Building was constructed in 1909 to accommodate the heavy volume of vessel traffic to and from Brooklyn in tandem with the Whitehall Ferry terminal. The stunning & unique Beaux Arts building underwent a stunning rehabilitation in 2006 by the NYC Economic Development Corporation. The Trust for Governors Island (formerly GIPEC) operates the two north-most slips and the newly renovated ferry waiting room.
Governors Island is easily accessible via many subway routes including the R & 1 trains less than a block away. This was the case in the early 20th century too, as you can see in the photo below of the elevated trains terminating at Whitehall.
Most historic buildings go through a less-than stunning period. For the BMB, this might have been the serviceable Coast Guard period seen below .
But the building is back in to its former glory now and it just about the handsomest point-of-departure in the City! Be sure to check out the array of wonderful details when you next come through.
Photos: Library of Congress
Everyone likes a peek behind closed doors. Here on Governors Island, we have increased the opportunities to see inside our historic buildings every year. This year, you can get a look inside many of the charming yellow wood frame houses of Nolan Park and the red brick Colonel’s Row and elsewhere by visiting an array of Arts Programming.
There’s Children’s Museum of the Arts, ETSY & Photography in the Admirals House, No Longer Empty the 6th Borough, the 4 Heads and the Architectural League (Check the GIPEC website for programming specifics each weekend) among others.
These glimpses of building interiors, not to mention unique programming, are lots of fun but what they don’t give you is a peek into what these houses were like when they were occupied by year round residents. Here’s your chance. Enjoy the collection below and check out Governors Island, 1982 style.
Photo Courtesy of NPS
In the mid 1800s it was not standard practice for the Army to construct churches on their bases. However, the chaplain for the Island, Columbia College Episcopal Reverend, John M. McVickar, was a tireless advocate for building a chapel and with funds from his family and friends and from Trinity parish, a chapel was erected in 1847.
From Governors Island: Its Military History Under Three Flags
by Reverend Edmund Banks Smith Chaplain of Governors Island1904-1924
This charming little chapel served the Island well for almost 60 years, at which point due to its advanced deterioration, Trinity decided to build the new St. Cornelius the Centurion Chapel in 1905. The new chapel is imposing with its limestone structure, neo-Gothic detail and splendid stained glass and it is a lovely part of the Island environment. Though we love the current chapel, we’re taking this opportunity to honor its modest predecessor (and the happy grazing cow too).
Excepting a decade at the end of the last century when the Coast Guard owned St. Cornelius, the Chapel has been owned and maintained by Trinity Parish.
The former Chapel would have been in the foreground of this picture.
All public access season, June to October, we hope you consider Governors Island a home away from home. It has all the comforts of your very own backyard from Adirondack chairs to hammocks to grassy knolls for spreading your picnic to a myriad of front porches you can perch upon. We really do offer all the comforts of home… the north and south of the Island now boast the newest, brightest, shiniest bathroom facilities to be found between the East River and Buttermilk Channel.
Check out the shine on these ….
If you find yourself at one of the many points of interest between the Water Taxi Beach and the vista-rich Picnic Point, don’t despair we still provide plenty of the most picturesque potties around.
In all, almost 100 places for you to stop off to “answer the call” and get swiftly back to the arts, entertainment, food and leisure of Governors Island. (All interior facilities and many exterior are also ADA accessible)