by David St.-Lascaux
Wee Residential Ruin, Pollepel Island
4 May 2014
POLLEPEL ISLAND IS BETTER KNOWN as Bannerman’s. On this windy Sunday morning we visited the Beacon Farmers’ Market (pure milk from Freedom Hill Farm) and got on board the Estuary Stewart for a short ride to this riverine oddity now administered by New York State Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation. Small craft fishermen, we were told, were angling for formerly declining striped bass, which are said to be currently migrating upriver to spawn. [Update: On 6 May, we saw a photo at the Beacon Institute, reportedly taken in around 1984, of a man in a boat with a human-sized sturgeon.]
The island and its history are recorded in an eponymous book, Bannerman Castle (2006) by Thom Johnson and Barbara H. Gottlock, from Arcadia Publishing’s superlative Images of America series. Long story short, Francis Bannerman VI was an arms dealer to “sportsmen and collectors,” as reported by the Hagley Museum and Library, repository of Bannerman’s family and corporate papers. (The Hagley is situated on the Brandywine River in Wilmington, Delaware, on the site of E.I. du Pont’s gunpowder yards, founded in 1802, as the Hagley says, an “example of early American industry.” For what it’s worth, the Hagley’s mission is to “invite people of all ages to investigate and experience the unfolding history of American business, technology, and innovation, and its impact on the world.”) Bannerman’s papers include diaries of his travels and a 1915 reaffirmation of his and his wife Nelly Boyce’s prenuptial agreement of 1872 (50/50).
Biographical excavation of Bannerman’s business brings one into direct contact with now-familiar Second Amendment issues, here from a 1933 Bannerman catalog, inviting wry parsing:
“No firearms are ever sold in our store to any minor. We will not sell weapons to anyone who we think would endanger the public safety.”
According to granddaughter-in-law Jane Bannerman in an essay at the Bannerman Castle Trust’s website, the devout Bannerman hoped for peace, and that “his collection of arms would someday be known as The Museum of the Lost Arts,” recalling Lewis Carroll’s perverse parody of Isaac Watts, from Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (1865):
How doth the little crocodile
Improve his shining tail,
And pour the waters of the Nile
On every golden scale!
How cheerfully he seems to grin,
How neatly spreads his claws,
And welcomes little fishes in
With gently smiling jaws!
and the Chapter 1 epigram from the contrarian exposé Merchants of Death: A Study of the International Arms Industry (in the pivotal year of 1934) by H.C. Engelbrecht and F.C. Henighen (astonishingly reprinted in facsimile by the Ludwig von Mises Institute, intending to demonstrate – in true crocodilian disingenuity – the folly of nation states):
To give arms to all men who offer an honest price for them without respect of persons or principles: to aristocrats and republicans, to nihilist and Czar, to Capitalist and Socialist, to Protestant and Catholic, to burglar and policeman, to black man, white man and yellow man, to all sorts and conditions, all nationalities, all faiths, all follies, all causes, and all crimes. — Creed of Undershaft, the arms maker, in [George Bernard] Shaw’s [ambiguous] Major Barbara.
Hagley’s above-cited list of hobbyist clients omits several Latin American and Asian governments (including those of Haiti, Panama and Japan), and Bannerman’s tortured “Christian Soldier” business defense (it might naturally be inferred that the anticipated soubriquet “Merchant of Death” would hurt his feelings):
The peace of the world is preserved to-day by the use of weapons.
The firm’s Broadway facility, where its inventory of army surplus materiel and ordnance was stored, attracted the confiscatory attention of New York City authorities. So in 1900-1, Bannerman bought and relocated to Pollepel, and built Bannerman’s Island Arsenal, as the stucco-and-brick “expressionist architecture” castle was denominated in billboard-sized letters. Its features included a tapered floor plan to convey the illusion that the building was bigger than it was. Bannerman died in 1918; in 1920, the explosion of 200 pounds (alternatively, tons) of powder and munitions destroyed a northside storehouse. Major damage to the castle occurred in a 1969 fire two years after the island’s sale to the State of New York, and in the collapse of the southeast corner and eastern façade in 2009. At this writing, the western wall is supported by metal buttresses; its final collapse seems probable – and imminent – absent further actions.
If the quondam castle’s future is doubtful, the residence on the island’s western hilltop is claimed to be in restoration. One can’t imagine how, given that Bannerman was rumored to have used inexpensive building materials. During the island’s heyday, Mrs. Bannerman gardened outside this fairytale roost, enjoying a particularly spectacular view south: looking downriver toward Cold Spring and West Point, one sees Breakneck Ridge on the eastern shore and Storm King Mountain and Crow’s Nest on the west in a vista only a low-flying turkey vulture could realize. Today’s gardeners would need to have an affinity for poison ivy, a preference for architectural follies and romantic ruins, and the ability to withstand attacks by now-nesting Canada geese.
The view from the Bannerman residence would’ve been considerably altered had Con Edison’s 1962 proposal for a hydroelectric project – most resembling a king-sized, Claes Oldenburg ‘n’ Christo concrete typewriter to be cut into Storm King Mountain – been realized. The New York State Department of Environmental Conservation states that the Scenic Hudson Preservation Conference, which successfully opposed the project, “laid the foundation for the modern environmental movement.” Given the lingering multi-century incursions (which Hagley candidly characterized as “unfolding history”) so eloquently if nonjudgmentally photodocumented in Up River: Man-Made Sites of Interest on the Hudson from the Battery to Troy (2008) by the Center for Land Use Interpretation (apparently the corporate embodiment of author/photographer Matthew Coolidge) in its American Regional Landscape Series, it would’ve been par for the course.
NOTABLY, POLLEPEL HAS BEEN PHOTOGRAPHED by ruin porn documentarist Shaun O’Boyle in Modern Ruins: Portraits of Place in the Mid-Atlantic Region (2010), which also contains photos of Philadelphia’s Bannermanlike Eastern State Penitentiary, the 1829 correctional fortress which had recently opened when Alexis de Tocqueville visited in 1831 as part of his reconnaissance for Democracy in America (1835 and 1840), urgently required reading. With the exception of America’s pioneering of profitable punishment (the penal system today a major Hudson Valley employer and economic factor), Bannerman personified the perfect storm of ideas explored by de Tocqueville – of American democracy at the intersection of religion, militarism and materialism – each of which has unleashed torrents of rococo self-justifying propaganda. Regarding materialism, de Tocqueville wrote:
Their taste for physical gratifications must be regarded as the original source of that secret disquietude which the actions of the Americans betray and of that inconstancy of which they daily afford fresh examples. He who has so his heart exclusively upon the pursuit of worldly welfare is always in a hurry, for he has but limited time at his disposal to reach, to grasp, and to enjoy it.
While de Tocqueville’s use of the words heart and disposal may have been subconscious, the accumulated evidence of predictable cycles of physical and human exploitation and abandonment in democratic America – and throughout the Hudson Valley – suggests that sustainability, stewardship and dignity are only actively hard-won, and must be features of another system, another species.
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May 17: Riverside Rails.
Text and image copyright © 2014.