Governors Island is a little gem of an island (172 acres) sitting just 800 yards off the tip of Manhattan at the mouth of the East River. For nearly 200 years it served as a military base and was closed to the public.
By Jan Kelsey
Governors Island is a little gem of an island (172 acres) sitting just 800 yards off the tip of Manhattan at the mouth of the East River. For nearly 200 years it served as a military base and was closed to the public. In 2003, 150 acres were sold to the people of New York, and the Historic District consisting of the remaining 22 acres became the Governors Island National Monument under the management of the National Parks Service. My husband and I were fortunate enough to live on Governors Island for almost three years while he served in the Coast Guard in the 1970s.
Finally overcome by curiosity tinged with nostalgia, we decided to visit the island and see what was going on there after all these years.
Governors Island is open every weekend and Monday holiday during the summer (Memorial Day weekend through September 30) from 10 a.m.-7 p.m. The National Monument is open for guided tours Wednesday, Thursday, and Friday all summer. We decided to visit on a weekend so that we could wander the entire island and explore our old haunts. The island is only accessible by ferry from either Manhattan or Brooklyn. No cars are permitted on the island these days. We headed down to the tip of Manhattan to catch the ferry at the Battery Maritime Building, slip #7 adjacent to the Staten Island ferry terminal. So far it all seemed very familiar, except for the absence of the Shore Patrol. The seven-minute ferry ride brought us to the island oasis in the harbor.
Today, Governors Island offers visitors fresh sea air, unparalleled views of Manhattan and the Statue of Liberty; family activities; extensive picnic grounds; a variety of food vendors; bicycle rentals, and walking (2.2-mile waterfront promenade around the island). There are changing art exhibits, programs sponsored by Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum and concerts throughout the season. For one weekend each August, Governors Island returns to 1863 with a Civil War encampment of living historians, dressed in Civil War uniforms and acting out scenes from a typical day in the life for soldiers and their families of the garrison stationed on the island.
As we walked up from the ferry slip at Soissons Dock, we passed my husband’s old office in Building 109, the Captain of the Port, where he had been Hazardous Materials Officer monitoring all hazardous cargo passing through New York Harbor. Rather sad looking now — all closed up and unused.
We continued our walk toward Nolan Park, a group of large houses overlooking Buttermilk Channel and Brooklyn beyond built between 1840 and 1904 and used as senior officers’ housing both by the Army and the Coast Guard. Governors Island served as an Army base from 1794 to 1966 when it was turned over to the Coast Guard. For the next 30 years, it was the largest Coast Guard installation, housing and employing over 6,000 people.
Nolan Park contains one of the most notable structures in the Historic District, the Commanding Officer’s Quarters or Quarters 1. Originally built in 1843 in the Greek Revival style, it has undergone various renovations through the years until arriving at its Colonial Revival appearance. It is possible to tour the inside and see the well-proportioned rooms, wide floorboards, and interesting moldings. President Reagan and Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev met here during their December 1988 summit meeting on the island. Next-door is the Governor’s House, built in 1708 and so-named because it was the residence of several British Colonial Governors during the 18th century. It is from this that the island derives its name. Unfortunately this building, too, has been renovated extensively through the years.
Turning toward the center of the Historic District we approached Fort Jay. An earthen fort for the defense of New York Harbor was built on this site in 1776 by General Israel Putnam. The present five-pointed, star-shaped granite and brick fort named after John Jay was completed in 1808 as part of a coordinated system of harbor fortifications. The fort bristled with 100 cannon and was surrounded by a dry moat. When we lived on the island, the barracks inside the fort had been converted into townhouse apartments for junior officers. The open space south of the fort served as the post parade ground and, until the 1990s, a nine-hole golf course. Colonel’s Row, a series of 19th-century brick senior officers’ houses, lines the west side of the parade ground.
Continuing our walk around the island, we approached Liggett Hall or Building 400. Designed by McKim, Meade and White, this massive Georgian Revival structure is over 1,000 feet long. It was built in 1929 to house an entire regiment, over 2,500 soldiers. There is some evidence that the Army changed the orientation of this building to run across the island east-west, rather than north-south as planned; thus preventing the creation of runways effectively blocking the development of a municipal airport on the island that was then being advocated by some New York congressmen.
All of the island south of Liggett Hall is landfill. Did you ever wonder where the dirt from the subways went? Between 1901 and 1911 over 4 million cubic yards of it from the construction of the IRT (Lexington Avenue Line) was used to add 80 acres to Governors Island.
Continuing on around the island we pass Yankee pier, so named for its “y” shape. While the island was a Coast Guard base it was home port for three of the service’s high-endurance cutters (378’s): Dallas, Gallatin and Morgenthau. The post card from the 1970s shows all three in port. Our apartment was a little farther along in a group of brick two-story garden apartments, which has been replaced by a much better looking apartment complex. We did find an old rusty bicycle behind one building still bearing a Coast Guard registration sticker – a vestige of the island’s past life.
The southern tip of the island is now Picnic Point with fabulous views, fresh breezes, picnic tables, and food vendors of all sorts. In our day it was called Foghorn Alley and a few unlucky families actually lived there adjacent to the aforementioned foghorn. Rounding the end of the island and walking along the waterside promenade back toward Manhattan you see spectacular views of New York harbor and the Statue of Liberty. It was from here that President Reagan spoke at the unveiling ceremony of the restored Statue of Liberty in 1986.
Approaching the northern end of the island the iconic, round sandstone fortification (walls 40 feet high and 8 feet thick) called Castle Williams looms large. The third of the three major historic structures in the Historic District, Castle Williams was constructed between 1807and 1811. Along with its twin fort, Castle Clinton in the Battery, Castle Williams was built to defend New York harbor. The defenses were deemed so formidable that the British fleet never tried to attack New York City during the War of 1812. During the Civil War, it was used as a prison for confederate POWs. Castle Williams continued to be used as a military prison, even housing POW’s during World War II, until the Coast Guard took over Governors Island in 1966. During our time on the island, Castle Williams had a more benign role housing a nursery school and scout troops. We would buy our Christmas tree each year from the Boy Scouts there.
Once past Castle Williams we returned to Soissons Dock for the ferry ride back to the hustle and bustle of Manhattan. At the moment, Governors Island remains little changed on the surface from when we lived there. Big changes are on the horizon, however. Construction began this spring on the first phase of the Governors Island Park and Public Space Master Plan. The plan calls for rejuvenating the Historic District with new gateways, signage and amenities. Dramatic topographical changes will occur on the southern part of the island creating a wetlands garden, a grouping of hills in the currently flat terrain with 360 degree vistas of New York harbor, a hammock grove, play lawn and plaza opposite the Statue of Liberty.
I urge you to visit Governors Island soon to see it as it has been for decades and is just for a little while longer — a quiet, leafy green oasis in the middle of the harbor. Once the Master Plan is complete, we plan to return to see Governors Island fully formed in its new life as a park and recreation facility for all New Yorkers.