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McKim Mead and White’s Castle Garden Aquarium looks spectacular, all heavy romanesque arches and wrought iron barriers to keep the penguins and what-not in. In my dreams of alternative New Yorks where lost architecture survives, I wonder what that building would be today.
Named for New York mayor DeWitt Clinton, Castle Clinton dates to 1811. It was an important fortification built on an island just off of Manhattan. It wasn’t the first defensive installation built to protect Lower Manhattan, and has nothing to do with the older fort that guarded Niew Amsterdam back in the day, which is long gone.
However, the fort was part of the network of five state of the art harbor defenses built in the youth of the United States. Although never used in war, merely by existing Castle Clinton and its fellow fortifications around the city helped deter British attacks on New York during the War of 1812. So that’s good. They sacked D.C. instead.
Like so many things in New York, Castle Clinton didn’t last nearly as long in its first incarnation as anyone probably expected. By 1823, the army had decamped to Governor’s Island and turned the fort over to the City. The City in turn leased it to developers who turned it into a concert hall and performance venue called Castle Garden.
Originally, you had to cross a causeway to get to the Castle, both in its fortress days and in its performance days. Separated by a couple hundred feet of water, it must have felt like a place apart from the bustle of Manhattan. For as long as that lasted; eventually, the growing city reclaimed the island, landfilling to extend Manhattan’s shores in the 1850s. Today’s Castle Clinton stands quite a ways inland in Battery Park.
As performance spaces migrated uptown with the well-heeled, I imagine need for a concert venue at the end of the island decreased, just as immigration skyrocketed. In 1855, the city took advantage of Castle Clinton’s location to turn it into the Emigrant Landing Depot. It played that role for almost 40 years, welcoming millions of new Americans. That ended only when the federal government took over immigration processes, and built Ellis Island to process newcomers.
In 1896, the place got thoroughly revamped and turned into, of all things, an aquarium. A palace of Poseidon’s creatures, designed by McKim Mead and White, no less, thoroughly obscured Castle Clinton’s martial origins.
When the aquarium closed in 1941, that might have been that for Castle Clinton. But a dedicated group of, let’s call them Clintonistas, banded together and had all the later buildings stripped away, restoring some semblance of the original fort. The National Park Service took it over, and that’s what stands as a national monument today.
Castle Clinton Today
Today Castle Clinton’s primary role is ticket booth for the ferries to the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island.
There’s a small exhibit of a chunk of the original Battery wall from colonial days. A small space recounts the Castle Clinton story with the above-photographed cool dioramas. They have a gift shop, too.
Soldiers and guns, singers and orchestras, huddled masses, fish, tourist hordes. Castle Clinton has played host to a diverse array of occupants over its two centuries. The story of Castle Clinton is fascinating. The place itself, not so much. There’s nothing left of any of the intervening stages in its story, and I feel let down by that. You can’t really feel what it was like, and there aren’t any artifacts short of the 1811 walls themselves and some historic photos.
Here’s a situation where technology could help. I’d love an augmented reality app that would layer ghosts of the various other Castle Clintons on top of the present one. A bigger exhibit, more artifacts, and better pictures might help too.
Tourists in New York will visit Castle Clinton eventually, because they’ll likely want to visit Liberty and Ellis Islands. Today, the only reason to go there is because you want to go someplace else. If you like old fortifications, see my Fort Totten review for some ideas of other places to go.
|Battery Park, Manhattan