My walking commute takes me past Castle Clinton twice every day, which has been great on the days when I had a meeting on site and otherwise nice to look over progress of the project. I mentioned yesterday that it can be fuzzy when a project ends, so let’s look at a timeline for the old fort.
Our work with John G. Waite Associates at the fort began in 2015 with an investigation of the conditions. We started repair design in 2018, completed it in 2019, and the project was bid in 2020. Work on the repairs began on site in January 2021 and the construction fence came down last month. As of last week, the contractor’s trailer is gone from the site, so that’s a good a marker of the end of work as any.
The West Battery was built on a rock off the tip of Manhattan island 1808-1811. The rock was expanded using rip-rap and a timber grillage foundation for the thick stone walls, but we’ll never know how good it might have been as a fort, since it was never engaged in a battle. In 1815 it was renamed Fort Clinton or Castle Clinton after New York State governor DeWitt Clinton. By 1824, the army realized it was useless to them (by the time theoretical enemy ships were close enough to the fort for it to fire on them, they’d already be firing on the city right behind it) and sold it to the city. It was turned into a theater by roofing over the central parade ground, and renamed Castle Garden.
From 1855 to 1890, when Ellis Island first opened, Castle Garden was used as New York’s immigration station, with the theater roof remaining but the seating removed. By the 1860s, landfill had swallowed up the rock into Battery Park. In the 1890s it was turned into the New York Aquarium, with some fake fortifications added on a second and third floor over the front (land-side) entrance. In 1941 the aquarium was removed along with most of the modifications that had been made over the proceeding 120 years, and the fort sat as a near-circle of masonry, effectively a ruin, until the 1960s when the National Park Service restored it to something like its original appearance. The entrance to the Brooklyn-Battery Tunnel and the Battery Park Underpass were both built nearby, underground, around 1950. I first got involved in the 1990s, working on an investigation of conditions. That report seemingly went nowhere, but it was eventually part of the context for the project that began in 2015.
Every one of those changes in use meant physical changes to the fort: the roof was installed, modified, and then removed. The interior was built for a theater, then as an administrative center serving huge crowds, then fish tanks were moved in. The walls were painted, stuccoed, de-stuccoed, restored. There is no way that our work was anything but another step in a long series of interventions, which is why I have a hard time saying when it started or if it’s now over.
Maybe, just maybe, time is continuous and, while we can section off a piece of it and call that the extent of a project, looking at a building constructed over 200 years ago that will likely still be sitting there 200 years from now means accepting all of the history as context.