At the easternmost tip of Staten Island, a natural promontory thrusts over the seething Narrows of the New York Harbor, formed by glaciers thousands of years ago. The site’s geography most recently made it a prime location for the Verrazano Bridge, but its history as a popular scenic overlook and strategic defense post dates back to the birth of the nation. The British had occupied the area during the Revolutionary War, and its first permanent structures were built by the state of New York in the early 1800s. These fortifications safeguarded the New York Harbor during the War of 1812, but were abandoned shortly thereafter. So began the familiar cycle of ruin and rebirth that characterizes the history of Fort Wadsworth.
By the mid-19th century, these early structures had fallen into an attractive state of decay. In a time when all of Staten Island held a romantic appeal as an escape from the burgeoning industrialism of New York City, Fort Wadsworth in particular was known for its dramatic terrain, sweeping views of the harbor, and evocative old buildings. Herman Melville described the scene in 1839:
“…on the right hand side of the Narrows as you go out, the land is quite high; and on top of a fine cliff is a great castle or fort, all in ruins, and with trees growing round it… It was a beautiful place, as I remembered it, and very wonderful and romantic, too…On the side away from the water was a green grove of trees, very thick and shady and through this grove, in a sort of twilight you came to an arch in the wall of the fort…and all at once you came out into an open space in the middle of the castle. And there you would see cows grazing…and sheep clambering among the mossy ruins…Yes, the fort was a beautiful, quiet, and charming spot. I should like to build a little cottage in the middle of it, and live there all my life.”
The “castle” was demolished to make way for new fortifications constructed as part of the Third System of American coastal defense, known as Battery Weed and Fort Thompkins today. The batteries remain the fort’s most impressive and unifying structures, but they too were deemed obsolete as early as the 1870s due to advances in weaponry, and were used for little more than storage by the 1890s. At the turn of the 20th century, Fort Wadsworth entered yet another phase of military construction under the Endicott Board, when the United States made a nationwide effort to rethink and rebuild its antiquated coastal defenses. Like its predecessors, the Endicott batteries never saw combat, and were essentially abandoned after World War I.
Though Fort Wadsworth was occupied by the military in various capacities until 1995, its defense structures went unused for most of the 20th century. By the 1980s, woods and invasive vines had covered areas that were once open fields, and Battery Weed was living up to its name, overtaken by mature trees and overgrowth. Since Fort Wadsworth was incorporated into the Gateway National Recreation Area in 1995, its major Third System forts (Battery Weed and Fort Thompkins) have been well maintained and properly secured, and upland housing and support buildings have been occupied by the Coast Guard, Army Reserve, and Park Police. But the headlands still retain an air of abandonment, due in large part to the condition of the Endicott Batteries, which remain off-limits to the public.
Layers of history peel back like an onion at Fort Wadsworth, as evidenced by a new discovery just unearthed by Hurricane Sandy. The storm caused a section of a cliff to collapse, downing several large trees and exposing the entrance to a previously unknown battery. Its vaulted granite construction places it firmly in the Third System, which means it was built around the time of the Civil War. Very little is known about the structure, except that it’s the only one of its kind at Fort Wadsworth. My best guess traces its partial construction to the 1870s, when Congress left many casemated fortifications unfinished by refusing to grant additional funding.
To my disappointment, the next room came to a dead end, and to my horror, it was crawling with hundreds of cave crickets. These blind half spider/half cricket monstrosities pass their time in the darkest, dampest, most inhospitable environments, and are known for devouring their own legs when they’re hungry. They give perspective to the level of isolation of this chamber, which likely stood underground for over a century.
What other mysteries still lie buried in the lunging cliffs of Fort Wadsworth, or the depths of this forgotten battery? The dirt may well conceal deeper rooms and darker discoveries…
Special thanks to Johnnie for the tip! Get in touch if you know of a historic, abandoned, or mysterious location in the five boroughs that’s worth exploring.
For more of New York’s neglected military sites, check out Fort Totten:
Mrs. Bennett wept as the memorial tablet was unveiled, damping the freshly broken ground of New York City’s first municipal airport. For all time, Floyd Bennett Field would honor the legacy of her departed son, the Brooklyn native and national hero who’d won the Medal of Honor by breaking barriers as the first to fly over the North Pole.
Floyd may have made his mother proud that day, but historians have since determined that the feat was a fraud. Perhaps he sold his soul for a ticker tape parade—the remaining two years of his life were fraught with failure, culminating in a dramatic end. Bennett perished while attempting to save a shipwrecked crew on a deserted island. Two months later, a deserted island was named for him. Perhaps it, too, was doomed to fail.
It was an unlikely upgrade for Barren Island, a plot of marshland in Southeast Brooklyn that had spent half a century as the final destination for New York City’s garbage. An hour’s drive from City Hall, with no access to major highways or train routes, the location was heavily criticized by the growing aviation community, but financial concerns ultimately outweighed their objections. Barren Island had one major advantage over the other proposed sites—the city already owned it.
Dredgers began pumping thousands of tons of sand from the depths of the Jamaica Bay to fill and level 500 acres. Completed at a price of $4.5 million, Floyd Bennett Field was dedicated in 1931 with a spectacular air show, drawing crowds of 25,000. By all accounts, the airport was a fine one, with eight hangars capable of accommodating fifty planes, a state-of-the-art lighting system, and innovative accommodations for amphibious aircraft.
As the fanfares subsided, the airfield struggled to compete with New Jersey’s Newark airport, which dominated passenger flights into the New York City area. At the time, carriers depended on airmail contracts with the US Post Office to ensure profits on underbooked flights, and the Postal Service never agreed to transfer its operations from Newark to Floyd Bennett Field. Ultimately, the new airport could only attract a single commercial airline to its runways; American Airlines landed its first passenger flight in 1937. As predicted, travelers complained of the long transit times into the city.
Despite its failings in the realm of commercial flight, Floyd Bennett Field was the site of dozens of notable achievements during the golden age of aviation. In 1933, Wiley Post made the first solo trip around the world, a record that was broken years later by Howard Hughes on the same spot. “Wrong Way” Corrigan made a memorable trip across the Atlantic in 1938, claiming he had accidentally gone the wrong direction after he was unable to get approval for the flight.
With the Second World War raging overseas, the Navy purchased the underused airstrip from the city in 1941. During the war, Naval Air Station – New York was the busiest installation of its kind in the United States. Aircraft Delivery Units positioned at Floyd Bennett Field were responsible for the commission, testing, and delivery of aircraft to combat zones throughout Europe and the Pacific. The field was reorganized in 1946 as a Naval Air Reserve Training Station. As the military scaled back operations in the 1970s, most of the airfield’s military functions were phased out, and the vast majority of the property was abandoned.
Three conflicting plans emerged from the local, state, and federal governments on how to repurpose the newly available land, but the winning bid came from the Nixon administration, which proposed including the site in the nation’s first attempt at an urban National Park. The Gateway National Recreation Area included 1,300 acres of waterfront parkland scattered through broad areas of the Rockaways, South Brooklyn, Staten Island, and New Jersey, largely composed of defunct military posts. At the time, critics accused the Gateway proponents of creating a “vast wasteland.” To some extent, these words proved prophetic. The Gateway area is currently the largest contiguous open space in New York City, but relatively few New Yorkers have ever heard of it.
As of 1991, daily visitors to Floyd Bennett Field averaged around 30, and even today, the Gateway remains largely unknown. During the Reagan years, the area was allowed to languish when the Parks Service was set back by a series of budget cuts. A 2003 bid to connect the areas with ferry links and rebrand the Gateway as the “National Parks of New York Harbor” failed to raise the private funds necessary to overhaul the parks. Meanwhile many of the area’s military structures—there’s over 400 scattered throughout the Gateway—have fallen into a state of disrepair.
For a place where relatively little happens, Floyd Bennett Field seems to be in a perpetual state of emergency—police cars and rescue vehicles are a constant presence, and choppers often loom overhead. The NYPD operates its helicopter division and runs Emergency Service training here. Pockets of civilian activity are scattered throughout the park, including Brooklyn’s largest community garden. In Hangar B, a group of enthusiastic craftsmen are preserving the airfield’s history by restoring and displaying historic aircraft. On summer nights, the park is a meeting place for amateur astronomers, offering some of the darkest skies in the five boroughs. Notably, it’s the only legal campground within city limits.
The recent restoration of the Administration Building, now a visitor’s center, is a significant sign of progress. Several buildings have been cleared out and renovated, but there’s still much work to be done. Recently, a $38 million sports and entertainment center salvaged four of the historic hangars, combining them into a single structure. Beyond the packed parking lot of the Aviator Sports complex, the crowds drop off quickly, leading to a sea of grass and vast stretches of empty pavement.
The sparsely populated acreage of Floyd Bennett Field can feel deserted at times, but you’re more likely to strike up a conversation here than the teeming walkways of Central Park; visitors invariably have something in common. They’re birdwatchers, dog walkers, cook-out captains, and retirees who all share a love of the outdoors and an appreciation for quiet places. Most importantly, they all know about this place, and cherish the secret. Floyd Bennett Field is due for a rebirth, and it’s just waiting to be discovered. Until then, let’s enjoy the silence…
For more abandoned military installations, check out Fort Totten:
Constructed in 1906, the Fort Totten Army Hospital has been vacant since the area was decommissioned as a military base in the mid 70s. Today, this once thriving infirmary with a 68-bed capacity exhibits a harrowing level of decay. Beneath an attractive Colonial Revival facade, hospital rooms self-destruct in slow motion.
Originally known as the Post Hospital, and later named after Dr. Walter Reed, the medical center is situated on a scenic bank of the Long Island Sound on the southeast portion of Willet’s Point, in an area currently under the jurisdiction of the NYC Fire Department. A newly renovated training facility, which once served the military as a barracks and mess hall, sits directly behind the hospital, a prime example of the potential for adaptive reuse of the installation’s vast collection of dilapidated buildings.
Most are in a state of limbo, awaiting a white knight to cough up the millions necessary to preserve and repurpose the structures, but unfortunately, Walter Reed Hospital is long past the point of no return.
Inside, a nearly complete lack of artifacts disappoints, but allows the structural degeneration to take center stage. Watch your step—some doorways give way to a two-story chasm, filled with jagged debris and splintered beams. Buckling walls, bulging floors, and collapsed light fixtures mingle in the wretched sea-foam green interior. Its a preservationist’s worst nightmare, but it only scratches the surface of Fort Totten’s decay.
With a third of the property somewhat maintained by the Parks Department, the grounds are currently open to the public. It’s worth the trip to see this moribund military base while most of its history remains (precariously) intact. With some of the last remaining open spaces in Queens, this little known park makes a perfect picnic spot, but I wouldn’t sit too close to its ill-fated infirmary—Fort Totten Army Hospital is falling down.
(For more on the past, present, and future of Fort Totten, see Part 1.)
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.
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.
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.