Neil Caplan is an optimistic man. He has a grand vision for the restoration of Bannerman Castle; and who can blame him. Just being on this island evokes fantastic visions of what medieval America would have looked like; if that had been a thing. Standing there, we watch the volunteers tend the gardens on the island as the day grows warm. Eighty degrees and climbing; the day promises to be hot and muggy. The only reprieve is the occasional breeze whipping along the still waters of the Hudson River, along with the many bushes and trees on this small dot of land, providing shade against the mid morning sun. As we stand at a platform, we gaze upon Bannerman’s Castle, or at least, what is left of it.
Preservation is a collaborative effort. It involves a coalition of parties coming together to further such a cause. This doesn’t just happen at a level of government. Many times community members and non-profits aid in the rehabilitation of buildings and public spaces, spearheading such projects.
Neil Caplan is the Executive Director of Bannerman Castle Historic Trust Inc. Along with other board members and a cadre of volunteers, they seek to preserve and restore the crumbling structures on Pollepel Island. Their group is a prime example of collaborative efforts between community and government, working in the best interest of history and architectural preservation. Without the cooperation between the New York State Office of Parks, Recreation, and Historic Preservation, and the Bannerman Castle Historic Trust, the structures would have crumbled long ago, leaving nothing but a pile rubble.
In recent years, Bannerman Castle was dealt a significant blow. In 2009, part of the arsenal’s wall collapsed after years of abuse from the elements. Today, the main part of this structure is held up by large telescoping struts, which support the stone, brick, and mortar walls. Due to safety reasons, no one is allowed within 100 feet of the structure. Even with this impediment, to walk on this island, amongst the gardens tended by some 30 volunteers, in the shadow of such a historic structure, inspires awe.
Pollepel Island and Construction of Bannerman Castle
Sixty miles up the Hudson River, Pollepel Island sits a half mile off the eastern shore. There is debate on the origins of the island’s name, or how it is pronounced. Either way, many locals to the Hudson Highlands area know it as Bannerman Island, due to the prominent wall advertising its company as “Bannerman Island Arsenal.”
In 1900 Francis Bannerman VI purchased the island as a means to store the arsenal of his ever-growing business of munitions and military goods. Having outgrown their shops in New York City, a location was needed with space for an arsenal. A small island just north of West Point was chosen to suit these needs. Construction continued on the island between the years 1901 and 1918, and ceased with Francis’ death in that last year.
During those 17 years of construction, the family’s residence was built and expanded upon, the arsenal grew, an icehouse was built, and quarters for the construction workers completed. The island became their own little bit of paradise within the Hudson. With ramparts, towers, and luscious gardens, this island was a fairy tale in New York, a castle built from the visions of one Scottish immigrant.
Francis Bannerman VI did not give specific instructions to the contractors when they were building these structures. Instead, Francis sketched what he envisioned, and gave them to the foremen. From these sketches, it was their duty to conceive and develop Bannerman’s vision, interpreting his drawings into what is seen today.
After the death of Francis Bannerman in 1918, his family stayed on at the island for a short time. Eventually they visited Pollepel less frequently during the summer months, and the buildings on the island began to fall into a neglectful decay. On August 15, 1920, an explosion rocked the powder house on the island, knocking windows out of homes over fifty miles away and severely damaging a section of the arsenal’s wall.
As time passed through the decades, family members passed away, and the company languished. By the 1950s, the business was all but a ghost of its once former glory. Munitions and military goods having been removed from the island, and the business no longer operating from the island, the State of New York sought to purchase Pollepel as parkland in 1965. Two years later the deal was completed.
In 1969 tragedy struck the island. A fire began in the arsenal, destroying the interior of the structure, gutting all the floors and beams. This left nothing but a hulking facade, a castle no different from those ruined stone monoliths, seen on the moors of England through an early morning fog.
By the 1990s the island was a whisper of what it once was. The structures were in ruins. The buildings and island overrun by vegetation. It was wild. The New York State Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation declared Pollepel Island a scenic ruin, deeming it off-limits to the public. But others had a different vision for Bannerman Castle.
The Bannerman Trust came to fruition in 1994. Its founding members Neil Caplan, Thom Johnson, Jane Bannerman, Susan Andersen, Dr. Sheila McManus, Robert McKenna, and Darlene Swann, sought to contain and repair the destruction that had been wrought on the island by decades of neglect. Working with the State of New York, they plod ahead, pouring countless hours of hard labor and work into this historic island.
Neil Caplan and the Bannerman Castle Trust Inc.
Neil is the Executive Directory of the Bannerman Castle Trust Inc. His grand vision does not just end at the structures rehabilitation. His plans add an element of culture to the island. Taking a different approach to garnering support and knowledge of Bannerman Castle, and the preservation effort occurring on this island, he has brought theater to the island.
Along with support from sponsors, different performances are conducted on the island. Dinner parties occur in a garden, while dulcet operatic tones float through the air, as you sup amidst a rich historic past.
None of this is easy though, and the board of directors has their hands full. Garnering support for historical preservation is never an easy task, and volunteers pour countless hours into grant work and fundraising support. In the end, good intentions go a long way, but they do not hold up a structure that needs repair.
Fundraising is a number one priority. Without funds, the walls cannot be repaired, the structures will fall into further neglect and ruin, and eventually, the island will become what they’ve worked so valiantly to stave off. This became ever more apparent with the collapse of the arsenal’s wall in 2009. Neil and the trust are racing against time and the elements.
Over thirty volunteers assist the Bannerman Castle Trust Inc. Gardeners and volunteers scour the paths and tend the plant life on the island. Neil remembers when the forsythia and lilacs were so thick on the island, it obscured many of the buildings and paths. They had grown twelve feet tall. This hospitable climate encouraged their growth, and as a result, it took a whole host of volunteers hours upon hours to cut them back.
The paths are gentle, sloping trails, winding through beautiful gardens, tended by the hard-working volunteers. Pieces of iron and steel, artifacts from Francis Bannerman VI’s day, adorn the gardens. Out back behind the family’s home, their clawfoot tub and bed frame rests amongst the overgrowth, the years treating them less than kind.
On the south end of the island, along the shore, a pie wedge garden adorns the base of the cliff of which their home sits atop. While the trust uses any plants donated to them and indigenous species, they also have a list of plants on the island that Helen Bannerman kept. Neil noted that when the house was in full order, many of the plants were imported, exotic species.
Triage is a difficult task, especially when it seems like everything is crumbling down around you. While Neil and the trust are allocating funds where they are most needed for preservation, they still need more. That is just the nature of historic preservation, to maintain the past, we must look ahead financially to the future.
The organization is making strides though. The walls on the arsenal shored up for now, preservation work is commencing on the family home which sits on the south end of the island, overlooking the Hudson. Once this project is complete, it will become a visitor center for the island. Inside it will contain interpretive history plaques directing the visitor towards a rich historic past.
This small bit of work brings hope to the island. The memorial garden next to the home has plaques, informing the public on Bannerman family members, and volunteers who have aided in the restoration. The preservation of this home is becoming a reality, and although everything has its cost, they are persevering with the work.
Help has come from different organizations, and is most welcomed by the trust. West Point Cadets have aided the island, by installing pumps, and running water lines up the slopes of the island, to aid in watering the many gardens. IBM employees aided in the clearing of a hiking trail that goes to a high point on the island. The trail is now part of a friday night hike put on by the trust, which affords stunning views of the Hudson River Valley.
Tours, Events, and Art Space
Aside from the many events that occur on the Pollepel Island, walking tours can be booked. A guided tour of the island is conducted by one of the many volunteers. Although you cannot just walk up to the walls of the arsenal, the views are impressive, and at the observation spots, you will get a full perspective of the structures. Kayak tours and power boat tours are available.
Art has come to the island. The environmental art of Deke Hazirjian and his company New York City Lights lit up Bannerman Castle in 1998. Illuminating the structure, it dominated the night sky. Currently, the art installation, Constellation, by Beacon-based artist Melissa McGill, can be found around the island. Towers have been placed in strategic locations, with a light atop each. When lit, this illumination creates a new constellation, for a few hours each night.
Other events include a picnic with live entertainment on July 4th–The Judith Tullock Band will perform while you enjoy yourself in the Bannerman family garden. On September 10th, there is a farm fresh dinner prepared by the Chefs Consortium. Or imagine yourself watching a performance of MacBeth, with castle ruins as the backdrop scenery of the play. These are just a few of the events on the social calendar of Bannerman Castle Trust Inc.
Neil and I circled around the island in their boat, as Jessie steered the craft. They took me around the breakwater, past the old harbors, where the ships would dock and unload military goods. Just seeing the arsenal and structures from the river is astonishing.
Francis Bannerman VI’s vision was astounding and staggering. He created a world on his own little island, constructing a fairy tale world so close to the shores of reality. I see this in Neil, and in all the workers and volunteers on the island. They are trying to recreate this world that Bannerman once envisioned. Their passion for this historic past is evident when you talk to any of them. Their goals and visions are earnest hopes and dreams for a bright future for Pollepel Island.
Bannerman VI left his mark on the Hudson River, and on the lives of Neil Caplan and those who belong to the Bannerman Castle Trust Inc. He left his mark on me as well. Motoring away from the island, I watched it disappear in the distance, as we approached Plum Point. Maybe if you visit, you will be enchanted by Bannerman Castle, as well. I know I will be back.
Reservations and Information
Click here to find reservations and event dates.
For kayak adventures
Find them on Facebook at Bannerman Castle Trust.
And, if you want to donate, please do so. Historic preservation requires two things, hours of volunteer work, and money. If you want to contribute, do so. Every bit helps.