Castles in New York City, you ask? Absolutely – some through wealth, some for military use, but regardless of the origins, New York State is the home of many castles. They range from functional – such as armories and structures for civil defense – to lavish homes and estates. This list presents ten of the castles of new York.
Most of the castles in New York City are open to the public in some form. A few of them are owned and run by the National Park Service and one of them is the staging area for visitors to the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island.
10. Singer Castle – St. Lawrence County
Singer Castle is a turn of the century historical structure located on Dark Island in the St. Lawrence River, built by Frederick Bourne, president of Singer Sewing Machine Company.
9. Belvedere Castle – Central Park
Sitting high atop Vista Rock (the second highest natural elevation in the park) Belvedere Castle provides a panoramic view in almost every direction. It was designed originally in 1865 by Calvert Vaux and Jacob Wrey Mould as a Victorian “Folly”, a fantasy building.
Besides offering breathtaking views the Castle also serves as a weather station, in fact whenever you see a local news broadcast that gives the temperature in Central Park, the readings are taken at Belvedere Castle. It also serves as the Henry Luce Nature Observatory. Inside are collections of natural history artifacts (skeletons, papier mache birds) as well as microscopes and telescopes, all designed to give young visitors an insight into methodology of naturalists. Aspiring scientists can borrow field packs that contain binoculars, reference material, maps, and notepaper, which can all be used to explore the Ramble, or to study the aquatic life from the edge of Turtle Pond. The castle, a great place to catch a glimpse of hawks, kestrels or osprey, is also a favorite of many of Central Park’s dedicated bird watchers.
8. James A. Bailey Castle – Harlem
The circus once made money – a lot of it. Bailey Castle is the former home of James A. Bailey, of Barnum and Bailey Circus fame. The limestone structure, located in upper Harlem, is a true castle, with turrets, porches, balconies, and 66 windows. The home of James A. Bailey was started in 1886 and finished two years later. Architect, S.B. Reed love the opulence of Fifth Avenue and copied it for the Bailey residence.
James A. Bailey partnered with PT Barnum to form the famous Barnum and Bailey Circus in 1881, then the circus merged with Ringling Bros in 1919 and the rest they say is history.
7. Kingsbridge Armory Castle or The Eighth Regiment Armory Castle – Bronx
Originally intended for state militias officered by the urban elite, armories had to provide clubrooms, dining halls, and administrative offices, but also ample drill floors for the soldiers and attached arsenals. In 1880, when the New York City government began to build its armories, emphasis was placed on the elaboration of the “headhouse,” or administration building. The preferred “castellated” style not only identified the military function of the building, but also deliberately recalled a past age of social authority and civil force. In the 1880s, unionized workers and swarming immigrants were increasingly seen by the city’s middle classes as agents of disorder. An armory’s contingent of “national guard” was to be used in suppressing urban strikes and riots. Fortress architecture made the threat palpable.
The building was designed by the firm of Pilcher and Tachau in 1901; Lewis Pilcher later went on to become New York State’s chief architect. In 2006 the Armory was used as a film set and studio for the Will Smith movie I Am Legend. Though the few remaining Kingsbridge guardsmen occupy an annex on 195th Street, military interest in urban armories dwindled after WWII. Subway-accessible and equipped with a 600-space basement garage, the building, after having been offered to the UN as a temporary home for the General Assembly, was used as a sports arena and exhibition building. In 1974 it was awarded landmark designation and is currently in the process of redesign for community use.
6. Squadron A Armory Castle – Manhattan
The monumentally scaled brick building resembles a fourteenth-century French fortress, complete with square towers, round turrets and a crenellated parapet. It had originally been used by a volunteeer unit called the first New York Hussars or the First Dragoons and later by a National Guard unit. After being used during World War I by the 101st Machine Gun Batallion, it served as one of New York’s most unusual recreational facilities: indoor polo grounds.
In the early 1960s the building was targeted as the site of a school and subsidized housing. Although the mixed-use project was subsequently abandoned as economically nonviable, the armory building was given to the Board of Education for use as the Intermediate School 29. The board concluded that the building could not be structurally transformed to suit the school’s functional requirements and rejected proposals by the Municipal Art Society and the New York Chapter of the American Institute of Architects that it be used as a sports center or that a new school building be built within its shell.
Late in 1968, after significant portions of the armory had already been torn down to make way for a new building to be designed by Morris Ketchum Jr. & Associates, public protest succeeded in halting the demolition and drawing the attention of the Landmarks Preservation Commission, which designated the remaining western facade, facing Madison Avenue, a landmark on October 19, 1966. Today Squadron A Armory Castle is home to the recreational grounds of Hunter College and only the ruins of the Madison Avenue façade remain between 94th and 95th Streets.
5. Castle Clinton – Battery Park
Until recently, one of the most vitally involved structures in the city’s life and history. Built as West Battery for the War of 1812 to complement Castle Williams across the waters on Governors Island (it never fired a shot in anger), it was originally an island fortification some 300 feet offshore, connected to Manhattan by a combination causeway bridge. Twelve years after the war it was ceded to the city. As a civic monument it served for the reception of distinguished visitors at the very edge of the nation (General Lafayette, Louis Kossuth, President Jackson, Prince Albert). Remodeled as a concert hall and renamed Castle Garden, it enjoyed a moment of supreme glory in 1850 as the site of the P.T. Barnum-promoted American debut of the Swedish soprano Jenny Lind. Only five years later it was transformed into the Emigrant Landing Depot, run by N.Y. State, where some 7.7 million new Americans were processed. Scandal led to its closure, and the processing of immigrants was transferred to federal control, at the Barge Office in 1890 and at Ellis Island in 1892. Changed by McKim, Mead & White, it became the New York Aquarium until 1941.
It was doomed by Robert Moses’ call for its demolition to build approaches for his ill-fated harbor bridge to Brooklyn — today’s Brooklyn-Battery Tunnel. A loud civic clamor and the reported intervention of Eleanor Roosevelt miraculously saved it though it languished inside a construction fence for decades. In 1946 the ruin was named a National Historic Monument. In 1986 it became a ticket office for the boats to National Park service attractions in the harbor, such as ferries to the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island.
4. Castle Williams – Governors Island
Castle Williams, inspired by the famous military architect Sebastien de Vauban, was designed and built by Lieutenant Colonel Jonathan Williams of the Engineer Corps. Williams was a nephew of Benjamin Franklin. He was superintendent of the Military Academy at West Point, founder and president of the Military and Philosophical Society, and Chief Engineer of the U.S. Army. He was put in charge of the defenses of New York in 1805 and completed the castle fortress in 1811.
Castle Williams was turned into a formal military prison, and served as such until 1966. During WWI, Walt Disney was held there for going AWOL. During WWII, the boxer Rocky Graziano was also held for going AWOL. Later, the FBI used the prison to hold Mafia and other criminal informants.
Today the castle is part of the Governors Island National Monument run by the National Park Service, and it is believed that there is high-tech secret communications gear on the island, watching over Manhattan.
3. Oheka Castle – Long Island
The name “Oheka” is an acronym for Otto Hermann Kahn. Almost a century ago, financier and philanthropist Otto Hermann Kahn built Oheka Castle in the middle of a 443 acre plot on the highest point on Long Island, New York, for an estimated cost of $11 million dollars ($110 million dollars in today’s currency). At the time of its construction in 1919, the French-style chateau was, and still is today, the second-largest private residence ever built in America. During the Gilded Age of the 1920’s, Kahn used the 109,000 square foot, 127-room estate as a summer home where he hosted lavish parties and regularly entertained royalty, heads of state, and Hollywood stars.
After Otto Kahn died in 1934, the estate changed hands several times, serving as a retreat for New York sanitation workers, and a government training school for Merchant Marine radio operators. In 1948, the Eastern Military Academy bought Oheka, bulldozed the gardens, subdivided the rooms and painted over the walls. After the school went bankrupt 30 years later, Oheka stood abandoned, except by vandals who set more than 100 fires in five years. In 1984, developer Gary Melius purchased Oheka and the remaining 23 acres that surrounded it.
Intent on preserving Oheka’s authenticity, historians and researchers were brought in to corroborate on every detail. After $30 million in restoration Oheka is a member of the Small Luxury Hotels of the World and is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
2. Bannerman’s Castle –
About fifty miles north of New York City, and only a thousand feet from the Hudson River’s eastern shore, there is a small, rocky island named Pollepel. Once feared by Native Americans, the island has a rich history that includes being used by European explorers and American soldiers. What the island is most known for, however, is not its place in any war or explorers’ journeys, but rather as home and storage site of the munitions and military surplus supplier, Francis Bannerman. Francis Bannerman emigrated to the United States in 1854 and, while living and attending school in Brooklyn, he began collecting and selling scrap from the harbor. In 1865, at the age of fourteen, Francis founded his own company to sell military surplus goods.
The business, called Bannerman’s, went from selling scrap metal and munitions, to full ships the young Francis purchased at Navy auctions. Some notable merchandise sold by Bannerman included cannons from the Battle of Yorktown, unopened crates of Civil War uniforms, and relics from Admiral Perry’s expedition to the Arctic Circle. His customers ranged from the early American film industry to Buffalo Bill, to entire U.S. army regiments during World War I. It is estimated that fifty percent of the commemorative cannons placed in public areas throughout the United States were purchased through Bannerman’s.
With an appetite for growth, Bannerman bought 90% of the US army surplus after the Spanish-American War, some of which was salvaged from the sunken USS Maine. So much equipment and ammunition was acquired in this transaction that city laws forced the businessman to look for storage outside of city limits. Fortunately for Bannerman, his son David happened across Pollepel Island while canoeing on the Hudson. In 1900, the family purchased the island as a safe storage site and, a year later, construction began on a Scottish-style castle and residence. Although most of the buildings served as storage for the business’ inventory, a smaller castle on the top of the island was built as the family’s summer home.
Since the early 1990s, however, the Bannerman Castle Trust has worked for the preservation of the island so that the public may appreciate it for its cultural and historical value. The organization aims to stabilize the remaining structures, all of which have lost their internal floors and non-structural walls. Today, hard hat walking tours are given by Castle Trust historians.
1. Lyndhurst Castle – Tarrytown, NY
Lyndhurst Castle is located approximately one-half mile south of the New York State Thruway (I-87) at the Tappan Zee Bridge on U.S. 9 in Tarrytown, New York. It was designed in 1838 by Alexander Jackson Davis. In 1864-65 Davis increased the size of the mansion for the second owner, George Merritt, who renamed the estate Lyndhurst. In 1880, the estate was purchased by Railroad magnate Jay Gould who used it as a country retreat until he passed away in 1892. Gould’s daughters, Helen and Anna inherited the estate. Helen died in 1938 and Anna in 1961. At that time, the estate passed to the National Trust for Historic Preservation.