The Battery and the Fort

by Don Friedman on March 15, 2017

Looking south-west from 26 Broadway:

That’s the Customs House on the left, Battery Park in the middle, and 1 and 11 Broadway on the right. (That’s last week’s snow, not this week’s.) The big oval in the park is the central lawn with curving walkways on each side; the smaller oval right on the water’s edge is Castle Clinton, foreshortened from its actual circular plan.

Things used to look different. (Actually, they look different in every era, but I want to compare two specific photos.) Looking west, circa 1900, with Pier A on the right:

The park lawn was cut up by far more path area. More interestingly, Castle Clinton has a roof. For some fifty years, it was the home of the New York Aquarium, and basically had a whole other building inside the eight-foot-thick fort walls. If you look up at my recent photo, you’ll see a wood ring roof, sloped inward to the center of the fort, as opposed to the earlier pseudo-dome.

Besides being one of the oldest extant buildings in the city that’s not a small wooden house, Castle Clinton is fascinating for its history. In a little over 200 years it’s been a fort (that never saw battle), a theater, a heavily-used immigration station, an aquarium, and now a monument. If ever there was a building that didn’t naturally lend itself to adaptive reuse, this is it: it’s an open circle of thick stone walls with two small buildings built into the inside face of the ring. And yet it has been reused again and again. The park around it has also gone through iterations, of being focussed on the waterfront promenade, a formal garden, full of vendors, full of ad hoc immigrant services, and now a naturalistic garden. A recent proposal would redesign it again as part of a nature-based storm-protection system for lower Manhattan. Pretty good for a park that is now 25 acres and used to be smaller.

If Castle Clinton and Battery Park can be reused in so many different ways, there is no reason that any building and any piece of land can’t be reused. Any time I hear someone say that a given building isn’t easy to convert to a new use, I want to ask: would it be more difficult to reuse than a circular fort with no roof?

Finally, about the title of this post…Battery Park is named after Castle Clinton in its earliest iteration as the West Battery. But the military aspects of the fort have never had much to do with the park, which didn’t exist until after the building had already moved on to a new use.

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