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:
School’s out forever; at least at P.S. 186. This aging beauty has loomed over West Harlem’s 145th Street for 111 years—but it’s been vacant exactly a third of that time. The Italian Renaissance structure was considered dilapidated when it shuttered 37 years ago, and today its interiors feel more sepulchral than scholastic.
Windows gape on four of its five stories, exposing classrooms to a barrage of elements. Spongy wood flooring, wafer-thin in spots, supports a profusion of weeds. Adolescent saplings reach upward through skylights and arch through windows. They’re stripped of their foliage on this unseasonably warm February morning, lending an atmosphere of melancholy to an already gloomy interior. Infused with an odor not unlike an antiquarian book collection, upper floors harbor a population of hundreds of mummified pigeon carcasses—the overall effect is grim. You’d never guess this building had an owner, but sure enough…
The site was purchased in 1986 by the nonprofit Boys and Girls Club of Harlem for $215,000 under the condition that new development would be completed within three years. After several decades of inactivity, the group introduced a redevelopment plan that called for the demolition of P.S. 186 and the construction of a 200,000 sq. ft. mixed-use facility with affordable housing, commercial and community space, and a new public school.
News of the school’s demolition mobilized area residents to save the structure. A series of local petitions and letter-writing campaigns championed the preservation of P.S. 186, and gained the support of the New York Landmarks Conservancy, though a landmark bid was blocked at a 2010 community board meeting. At the time, owners insisted that rehabilitating the decrepit building was a financial impossibility.
In a surprising turn of events, the BGCH recently downsized the plan in favor of preservation. The school will be renovated into 90 units of affordable housing and a new Boys and Girls Club.
It’s a rare victory for preservationists, and an unlikely one given the school’s history—when the building was last in use, community members wanted nothing more than to see the place razed.
In addition to generally run-down conditions, safety became a major concern at P.S. 186 in its final years. The H-shaped design allegedly had the potential to trap “hundreds of children and teachers” in the event of a fire. Doors on the bottom floor were to remain open at all times to keep the outdated floor plan up to code, leaving the building completely vulnerable to neighborhood crime.
According to the school’s principal at the time, “parents have been robbed in here at knife point, and people…use this building as a through-way.” In a 1972 incident, two youths, including the 17-year-old brother of a 5-year-old P.S. 186 student, broke into room 407 and raped a teacher’s aide at gunpoint.
Increasing community concern reached a boiling point earlier that year when 60 members of the African American empowerment group NEGRO (National Economic Growth and Reconstruction Organization) moved into the school to call for an evacuation of 600 students on the top three floors.
The stunt caught the attention of the Fire Department, who toured the school later that week. A deputy chief “didn’t see any real hazardous problem,” but was forced to evacuate the remaining 900 students when he was unable to activate the fire alarm. Inspectors discovered that wires leading out of the alarm system had been cut, although a school custodian claimed that the alarm system had worked during a routine test at 7:30 that morning.
By 1975, funding was at last approved for a replacement school, and much to the relief of parents, plans were put in place for the immediate demolition of the aging fire trap. Who could predict that thirty-seven years later P.S. 186 would be getting a second chance?
A few decades ago, this school was described as “antiquated,” “unsafe,” and “plain,” but today, it’s called “historic,” “magnificent,” and “beautifully designed.” This reversal illustrates the complex relationship we New Yorkers have with our buildings, and begs the question: what might the the thousands of old structures we see torn down every year have meant to us in a century?
It’s been a few months since I’ve set foot in the building, and today the visit feels like a half-remembered dream.
To keep vagrants out, cinderblocks had been installed in almost every window and door of the bottom floor. It looked too dark to shoot—but as my eyes started to adjust, I saw that light was finding its way in. Through every masonry crack and plaster aperture, bands of color projected onto decaying classrooms, vibrant variations on a pinhole camera effect. Past a vault inexplicably filled with tree limbs, a hall of camera obscuras each hosting an optical phenomenon more bewitching than the last. P.S. 186 is largely considered an eyesore in its current state, but who could deny that its interior is a thing of beauty?
However photogenic, this decay does little good for its underserved community—it’s the sort of oddity this city doesn’t have room for. Here’s a look inside, before we turn the page on what’s destined to be the most colorful chapter in the controversial, and continuing, history of this unofficial Harlem landmark.
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.
If you pass by a graveyard on the Jackie Robinson Parkway, don’t hold your breath. You’ve got two and half miles of Queens’ Cemetery Belt ahead of you, a burial ground so vast it’s supposedly visible from space. Surrounded on all sides by an ocean of headstones, the modest Machpelah Cemetery makes up only a small fraction of the sprawling necropolis, but its arguably the creepiest graveyard in the city…
Cramped centenarian tombstones muster in rows on the hilly plot—the place is rundown and deserted, but one grave is consistently well-maintained. It’s the monument of Machpelah’s most famous resident, master escape artist Harry Houdini. Only steps from the headstone lurks an eerie cemetery office, abandoned since the late 80s. The cemetery is a dream destination for graveyard ghouls on a chilly October night, especially since Halloween marks the anniversary of Houdini’s untimely death.
The history of the Cemetery Belt can be traced back to the Rural Cemeteries Act of 1847, under which cemeteries became a legitimate commercial enterprise for the first time in New York. Non-profit organizations were authorized to buy up land and sell plots to individuals, replacing the traditional practice of burying the deceased in churchyards and private property.
Areas of then-rural Queens quickly became concentrated with new cemetery holdings. A stipulation of the act limited the acreage of land an organization could purchase in a given county, but church groups and land speculators got around this by buying up neighboring plots on the Brooklyn-Queens border, forming the region now known as the Cemetery Belt.
Between 1832 and 1849, a series of cholera outbreaks thoroughly exhausted Manhattan’s remaining burial sites. The common belief at the time was that ground water could become contaminated with the disease when infected corpses were exposed to the soil. As a result, all burials were prohibited on the island of Manhattan in 1852.
As the population swelled, new developments, including the Brooklyn Bridge, often required the displacement of grave sites. Manhattan started evicting its dead people, and sending them to western Queens—tens of thousands of deceased were disinterred and transported to mass graves in the Cemetery Belt. These ghoulish dealings were kept away from the public eye, often carried out in the dead of night.
Today, Queens’ five million “permanent residents” almost triple its living population, but their numbers are at a standstill. Most of these cemeteries reached capacity long ago, leaving many without a source of income. As a result, some have fallen into disrepair, with officials failing to provide the “perpetual care” their patrons are rightfully owed.
At the nearby Bayside Cemetery, conditions were downright shameful, and hair-raising—exposed human remains were identified at several of the overgrown grave sites. Community pressure, litigation, and the effort of volunteers have gotten the place cleaned up, albeit in a cursory fashion. Gaping mausoleums have been closed off with cinderblocks and boards.
At Machpelah, the plots are untidy, but not nearly as egregious as the Bayside grounds. The cemetery’s decline is most apparent in its ramshackle office building. The boarded-up structure is dilapidated now, but its architecture, dating to 1928, continues to impress on the surface.
Any semblance of grandeur breaks down on the inside. The striking arched windows visible in the facade are installed in rectangular frames, and their diamond panes are all artifice. The skeleton of a drop ceiling hangs askew, with most panels collapsed and reduced to a yellow paste that covers the ground. The office has apparently fallen victim to vandals over the years, furniture and safe deposit boxes have been ransacked, old burial records lie scattered in the grime. Anything of value has been removed, but a coin bank souvenir from the 1939 New York World’s Fair remains, its most recent deposits dating back to 1988.
“Stuffy” doesn’t begin to describe its suffocating ether. Reception rooms are boxed in with cheap wood paneling, which combines with the dizzying funk of mildew to evoke the interior of a coffin. Secluded in a cockeyed armoire, Nosferatu could feel right at home here.
Every Halloween, hundreds of devotees make the yearly pilgrimage to Houdini’s final resting place to pay their respects, party, and make an offering—around the anniversary of his death, pumpkins, broomsticks, and playing cards mount like a cairn on his headstone.
The Society of American Magicians, for which Houdini served as president until his death, was the official caretaker of the site until recently. Between 1975 and 1993, the bust that adorns the Houdini monument was stolen or destroyed four times—it’s thought to be the only graven image in any Jewish Cemetery.
For many years, the likeness was only brought out for yearly ceremonies, but in 2011, a group of magicians from the Scranton Houdini Museum engaged in some guerrilla restoration, installing a new bust with the blessing of Houdini’s family. The group has since taken over responsibilities for the site’s care, and so far the monument remains unscathed.
With no funds to reoccupy, renovate, or demolish the old office building, its likely to stand until it falls down on its own; the same can’t be said of Houdini’s shiny new effigy. Odds are he’ll lose his head again—even though it’s screwed on. So next time you’re traveling down that graveyard highway, be sure to stop by for a look while you can. There’s no need to wait for the witching hour. At Machpelah Cemetery, the gate is always open, and every day is Halloween.
UPDATE: The office was demolished on August 21st, 2013.