Saving Bannerman

A local nonprofit organization attempts to salvage this beloved island castle



bannerman castlePhotograph by Lauren Golde

If you’re not familiar with it by name, you’ve probably seen it from the Metro-North train: giant stone parapets poking through the surface of the Hudson River, on a small island not far from West Point, the tableau resembling a giant-scale model of something you’d find in an elaborate home aquarium.

This is Bannerman Castle, crowning jewel of the Hudson Valley — and it is, quite literally, falling apart. In late December, a corner of the tower collapsed, damaging some of the structure below. The rest of the castle, already in jeopardy, is now in urgent need of repair. “This is an important piece of Hudson Valley history, and is known throughout the world,” says Neil Caplan of the Bannerman Castle Trust, a not-for-profit group dedicated to the preservation of the historic site. The island itself is the stuff of legend. Native American tribes avoided the place, believing it haunted, and the early Dutch settlers embellished these tales. The Bannermans themselves speak of the “goblins of the island.”

The eponymous Bannerman, Frank, a prosperous munitions dealer, endeavored to construct a castle in the style of his native Scotland. Construction began in 1901. For years, the Bannermans used the place as a summer home, with Frank’s wife Helen planting the gardens that are still a highlight of the tour. The Taconic Park Commission assumed ownership in 1967. “It’s part of our folklore,” says Caplan, noting that the site has appeared in films such as North By Northwest, Transformers, Against the Current, and Hello, Dolly! “It deserves to be saved.”

The Trust has been doing just that — securing a grant from the Environmental Protection Fund to help finance a structural overhaul of the former Bannerman residence, a smaller but still castellated building on the western side of Pollepel Island. The part of the castle that was destroyed, in fact, appeared in a photo spread in Esquire in November. Now, the project needs more money, fast, or Bannerman Castle may not survive.

The plan for reconstructing the castle begins with thermal screening of the site, a prerequisite for the actual repair work, which will be extensive.

“It takes a lot of money,” Caplan says — the estimate is one-third of a million dollars — but the silver lining is that the collapse, a product of exposure to the elements over time, has drawn attention to the castle’s plight. Senator Chuck Schumer, for one, has taken an active interest in the project. “It’s unfortunate that a large section of the tower had to come down for people to get interested,” Caplan says. “It’s heartbreaking, but hopefully this is a wake-up call. If all the Hudson Valley gave $10, we’d have enough money to save it.”

Meanwhile, the plan is for tours to the island to continue — boats run by Hudson River Adventures leave from both Newburgh and Beacon from May through October. Walking tours are only available on Saturdays and Sundays, kayaking tours are given by reservation. For more information, visit www.bannermancastle.org/news or www.prideofthehudson.com/pollepel. Let’s hope that the goblins of the island will be thwarted.

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