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Abandoned, Historic, Military

Inside Fort Totten: Part 1

Fort Totten

An abandoned battery at Fort Totten

Fort Totten sits on a far-flung peninsula of the Long Island Sound, forming the Northeast corner of Queens.  The grounds of this defunct military installation turned underfunded public park are home to over 100 historic buildings representing a series of changes that have taken place over the area’s quiet 200 year history.  Unfortunately, the majority of these stuctures have been disused for decades, and many are in a state of progressive collapse.  With so much of Fort Totten closed off with caution tape, overtaken with vines, or hidden beneath rusty fences, it makes for an unconventional park, but a fascinating place to wander.

An 1829 farmhouse predating the land’s military use crumbles behind a weedy barricade; out front, a prominent sign bears the inscription: “Please Excuse My Appearance, I am a Candidate for Historical Preservation.”  It’s an image that typifies the current state of affairs in the Fort Totten Historic District.

On the northern tip of Willet’s Point, a monumental granite fortification constructed during the Civil War as a key component of the defense of the New York Harbor sits unoccupied, though it’s used as a haunted house on occasion.  Clustered on the rest of the grounds, dozens of dilapidated Romanesque Revival and Queen Anne Style officers’ quarters, hospitals, bakeries, movie theatres, and laboratories vie for restoration, but so far the funding has failed to materialize.

Fort Totten

The Willet Farmhouse, Fort Totten’s oldest structure, and one of the most at risk.

One such building, a two-story YMCA facility built in 1926, has been abandoned for close to 20 years, but much of what’s left behind lies undisturbed.  On a bulletin board in an upstairs landing, a 1995 thank-you letter from a kindergarten class at PS 201 hangs by a crude depiction of Santa Claus, both lovingly dedicated to an Officer Rivera.  Steps away, in a rotting book room, an incongruous stash of 80s porno magazines.

Most recently used as a community relations unit of the New York City Police Department, the building is cluttered with mattresses, discarded packaging, and unopened toy donations.  The New York City Fire Department, which now operates training facilities in a renovation abutting the hospital building, currently uses the attached gymnasium as a storage space.  The basement was filled with rusted-through shelving and ruined equipment, flooded and too dark to shoot.

The Battery

An overgrown pit in a World War I battery.

On the other side of the peninsula, a series of concrete batteries sit half-submerged in plant life.  These were constructed at the turn of the century, but by 1938, they were declared obsolete and subsequently abandoned.  The boxy design looks like modern architecture to me, but the battery reveals its true age in other ways.

Pencil-thin stalactites ornament the ceiling wherever the rain gets in, suspended over a crank-operated machine designed to lift heavy weaponry a century ago.  The network of maze-like tunnels feature arched hallways with metal doors, winding staircases, and yawning pits, all fit for a dungeon.  Guards stationed at the fort were laid off in 2009, and it was unclear on my visit if the area was open to the public or not.  A rusty barrier, more hole than fence, didn’t keep out a couple of high school kids, but offered a spot for them to park their bikes.

When the military base changed hands in 2005 and became an official New York City Park, Bloomberg predicted that Fort Totten was “certain to become one of New York’s most popular parks.”  Some community members feared that the estimated 450,000 yearly visitors would disrupt parking, increase crime, and change the face of the neighborhood, but ten years later, tourism has yet to pose a problem.

Fort Totten hasn’t lived up to its potential just yet, but the progress that has been made gives hope for improvements to come.  The park now offers regular events and educational programs to draw visitors and enrich the surrounding community.  Several nonprofit groups have occupied and renovated the decrepit buildings, including the landmarked Officers’ Club, which now serves the Bayside Historical Society as an educational facility and exhibition and event space.  These are small but significant victories in the effort to save the historic legacy of a little-known plot that could be the crown jewel of Queens parkland.

(Though in some cases, it may be too little, too late.  One look inside the profoundly decayed Fort Totten Army Hospital, in Part 2 of this post, will assure you of that.)

-Will Ellis

Related Links:
Fort Totten

This obscure Queens park doubles as a ghost town.

YMCA Exterior

The YMCA building partially obscured by monstrous vegetation. On the left, a new renovation.

Inside Fort Totten

Inside, a rusty scale abandoned in the lobby.

Inside Fort Totten

An emptied snack bar once served concessions at sporting events and amateur theatre.

Inside Fort Totten

A community kitchenette still held pots, pans, and complete place settings.

Inside Fort Totten

A bulletin board on the second floor that hadn’t been updated in 17 years.

Inside Fort Totten

This room must have provided temporary housing to minors.  The floor was littered with clothing and old English projects.

Fort Totten

In the opposite corner, a derelict dollhouse. If I had been in the Twilight Zone, I’d have found a miniature me in there.

Inside Fort Totten

The remains of a rotting book room, which also housed a store of nudie magazines.

Inside Fort Totten

Through the library, a crumbling projection room overlooking the YMCA gymnatorium.

Inside Fort Totten

Daylight spills onto the practical planes of an underground battery.

Inside Fort Totten

Other areas had vaulted ceilings and arched double doors.

Inside Fort Totten

The interiors were almost completely empty, except for a dusting of dirt and leaf litter.

Inside Fort Totten

Some rooms held a few remnants…

Inside Fort Totten

Like this one: 100-year-old machinery in a dark Fort Totten nook.

Queens is quickly becoming my favorite borough.  Check out:
Fort Totten Army Hospital

Click through for Part Two: The Fort Totten Army Hospital

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Discussion

15 thoughts on “Inside Fort Totten: Part 1

  1. The photo with the caption: “This obscure Queens park doubles as a ghost town” wasn’t taken at Fort Totten, NY.

    Like

    Posted by Fort Totten | 7-1-12., 12:17 pm
  2. I didn’t recognise this house either but I did recognise the distinctive concrete clothesline rack and the new-ish Ernie Pyle building on the right. Growing up there we were never allowed access to the YMCA building as it was leased to the Police Athletic League.

    Like

    Posted by floyd stricker | 7-7-12., 7:01 am
    • Hi Floyd, just researched this fort totten site as my sister and I are planning a trip there. I was friends with your sister Suzanne and your mother was my Girl Scout leader. Take care Lisa Medor-Tott

      Like

      Posted by Lisa medor-tott | 10-9-13., 8:23 pm
      • Hi Lisa, I remember you and your sister. Have fun on your visit.

        Like

        Posted by Floyd Stricker | 10-11-13., 10:09 am
  3. you should have photo’d the old-school refrigerator and oven across from the dollhouse. the old bed and mattress in front make for a priceless composition

    Like

    Posted by brotherjones | 7-15-12., 10:05 pm
  4. is Fort Totten still accessible? If so can someone get in touch with me on ways to get there and such

    Like

    Posted by Brendan | 5-26-13., 1:16 am
    • Fort Totten is a public park and can be reached by bus from the end of the 7 line.

      Like

      Posted by abandonednyc | 5-26-13., 5:18 pm
      • From Flushing, Main Street, locate the Q13 bus to Fort Totten. You’ll be riding the entire route.

        Like

        Posted by tom0153 | 11-7-14., 11:52 am
      • Fort Totten is at the end of the Q13 bus line, and the bus should be marked “Fort Totten” when you get on at Flushing Main Street. You will be riding the entire route, so bring a book or a good guide like “Forgotten NY” or “Forgotten Queens.”

        Like

        Posted by tom0153 | 11-7-14., 11:55 am
  5. I grew up on Ft. Totten and spent most of my days scrambling around the battery ruins…lots of fun…until the (usually nice) M.Ps caught you :)

    Like

    Posted by Britta | 6-25-13., 2:04 pm
  6. will you be chased or followed if you wander around here?

    Like

    Posted by hunter | 4-20-14., 2:04 pm
  7. I took my kids there for the lantern tour on Halloween night. We wonder around for a couple of hours and no one chased or followed us. There’s a patrol car roaming the area. Although they didn’t see us. It was pretty dark and we didn’t have our flashlights on.. pretty creepy FOR SURE… I got to scared and left.. I’m planning on going back during the day and exploring further.

    Like

    Posted by Lydia | 11-6-14., 10:01 am

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