Bannerman Island is one of those elusive places that New Yorkers have yet to become jaded about or claim it was “so two years ago.” Partially because it’s in that seemingly distant place called Dutchess County NORTH of Westchester. But I think it’s more so because the story of the island is so fascinating and the architecture so unique. And unlike other ruins in the New York area, this one is truly in danger of disappearing. When I saw that Atlas Obscura, the online guide dedicated to “keeping the world weird,” was giving a tour of Bannerman’s Island for one of their Obscura Society Events, I jumped at the chance to finally see this mythical place.
Pages from Bannerman’s catalog of war surplus (top left), Francis Bannerman sketch of #3 warehouse (top right), aerial view of island and breakwater system (bottom right), photograph of warehouse entrance (bottom left)
The decaying castle structures were built near the town of Beacon, New York by Scottish-American entrepreneur Francis Bannerman as warehouses for his business “Bannerman’s,” a catalog business for war surplus (including munitions and large artillery). Originally based in Brooklyn and later Manhattan, Bannerman’s was forced to relocate when it procured a large stash from the Spanish American War, much of which was too dangerous to have within city limits.
The Bannermans discovered the island by accident while canoeing on the Hudson and purchased it from an eccentric husband and wife duo named Mary and Anthony Taft for $600 (plus $1000 in notes that were paid off over two years). The Bannermans had to promise in writing that the island would not go back to its past use as a haven for illegal alcohol and prostitution. [Incidentally, one of the occupants of the island before the Tafts enjoyed dressing and acting as Queen Victoria, pretending that her husband was Prince Albert].
Remnants of the breakwater system
Francis Bannerman built the structures gradually. He was not an architect, but would draw elements on napkins and envelopes based on castles he saw on travels to Europe, and give the sketches to his construction workers to build. A breakwater system had to be built to ensure safe docking for shipments and the rocky island had to be dynamited to provide enough flat land for building the structures. The warehouses were constructed from brick and concrete and great attention was paid to the shields and sigils of the family and their Scottish-American heritage. Whenever the family wanted to get fancy, they could simply pull out some of the war paraphernalia from storage.
Warehouse Entrance #3 in 2012. Two and a half walls collapsed in January 2010
The current state of the structures are the result of a number of unfortunate incidents. In 1918, Francis Bannerman died and his family lost interest in maintaining the buildings. The powerhouse exploded in 1920, sending debris all the way across the Hudson and blowing out some of the warehouse windows. The gradual construction of the warehouses meant that buildings were supported by one another, lending a fundamental weakness to the design. In addition to the natural toll of time, a particularly harsh winter in 2010 led to the collapse of two major walls of the tallest warehouse.
The Bannerman Residence
Perhaps the most architectural outhouse ever built, accommodated two!
The family house was stabilized, but to preserve the warehouses, the Bannerman Castle Trust must raise $150,000 in funds to match a grant awarded by the New York State Environmental Protection Fund. The island, says Jane Bannerman, one of family descendants, should be “preserved as proof of people’s and imagination” in America during that time.
How to Visit:
The New York State Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation and the Bannerman Castle Trust provide access and tours. There are many wonderful events that take place on the island, including overnight photography workshops, musicals, “Poetry Through the Ages,” by the son of actor Rex Harrison, and a Farm Fresh 5-course Hudson Valley Chefs Dinner on September 8th. Other ways to visit are by boat (operated by Hudson River Adventures, $30, reservations required) or by kayaking ($100-$120), or by private charter. All details on the Bannerman Castle Trust website. To get to Beacon, take Metro North’s Hudson Line.
Get in touch with the author @untappedmich. Check out more excursions and events with Atlas Obscura. Go inside the Black Island of Tin Tin, a private island in the south of France with a castle that once proclaimed its own country.