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The arsenal overhead

Castle on the Hudson

Scotsman's New York fortress stands as monument of ingenuity

August 15, 1997
Web posted at: 5:11 p.m. EDT (1711 GMT)

From CNN Correspondent Natalie Pawelski

POLLEPEL ISLAND, New York (CNN) -- As castles go, Bannerman is in the wrong place -- and the wrong time.

Cool Castle:
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A 20th century creation, Bannerman Castle rests on an island in the Hudson River near New York City and West Point. Scottish immigrant Frank Bannerman VI built the place as storage space for his military surplus business.

The Arsenal now

"At the time he had a warehouse along the Brooklyn waterfront," said Thom Johnson of Bannerman Castle Trust. "And the locals were very upset about the potential of him storing black powder near their homes and businesses. ... One of his sons saw the island and realized it would be a valuable place where he could construct a powder house."

Bannerman decided to build a warehouse with attitude. He started in the year 1900 with no blueprints and no architect -- just one man's idea of what a castle should look like.

"(H)e used the references of Scottish baronial castles and I think Moorish castles to come up with his own kind of architecture," Johnson explained. "He would instruct his army of masons what to do, and they would do it."

Whatever didn't sell in Bannerman's army-navy store was fair game for construction crews.

"He had old bayonets that were put into the walls," said the Trust's Neal Caplan. "There were stories that he used muskets that were broken and they went into the walls."

Screwdrivers and bed frames used by workers to reinforce concrete are still visible, and in one room, a tugboat was used as the base for the foundation. The spheres decorating the fortress walls are actually leftover buoys.

The arsenal then

Over the years, this eccentric warehouse was used to store all kinds of military artifacts -- cannons from the American Revolution, Civil War battle flags, a room full of pith helmets from the Spanish American War.

Jane Bannerman, granddaughter-in-law of the castle's builder, remembers visiting in the 1930s and '40s, following the caretaker through the castle's dimly lit passageways.

"It was full of the most remarkable ... junk -- leftovers from wars that by then were long over," she recalled. "You never knew what you were going to find."

In 1920, gunpowder stored in the castle exploded, blowing a 25-foot-long piece of wall clear across the Hudson and onto some railroad tracks. Since then, fire, vandals and the forces of nature have taken a toll.

Every year, more walls turn into rubble. The Bannerman Castle Trust, together with the New York State Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation -- which bought the island from the Bannerman family in 1967 -- is hoping to stop the decay.

the facade

"I've been fascinated by this wacky piece of architecture since I can remember, basically," said Johnson. "And I think it would be a crime to lose it."

The trust's members want to clear paths, stabilize the castle, and bring tourists in. They say they could never rebuild the whole castle, but they might be able to restore the nearby house where the Bannermans used to stay.

Jane Bannerman said she can picture it -- a piece of the past restored part-way to glory, and to its place on the American landscape.

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