Governors Island and Liggett Hall
Located one-half mile south of Manhattan, Governors Island was first sighted by Giovanni Verrazano when his ship came into New York Harbor in 1524. Fast-forward about 250 years and Governors Island was under British rule. Lord Cornbury, one of several corrupt colonial governors, spread rumors of an impending attack on the city by the French. This prompted the English to quickly fortify the harbor by building defense on Governors Island. Money was raised through taxes levied on practitioners in law, every person that wore a periwig (or powdered wig), bachelors over the age of 25, and slaveholders. Among the defensive structures built was a shadily financed private estate for the corrupt Governor. Cornbury is said to have also misappropriated £1500 meant for the defense of New York Harbor and spent it on women’s clothing—for himself. There are reports that he commonly lurked behind trees dressed in formal women’s attire only to “pounce, shrieking with laughter, on his victims.” After cross-dressing for his wife’s funeral, the Queen permanently removed him from office and that was that.
By 1774, reasons in addition to corruption and cross-dressing led to increased tensions between the British and American Colonists. Simultaneously, talks of a more permanent fortress being built on Governors Island were never realized, and the island in its vulnerable state was taken over by rebel forces in spring of 1776. Due to the importance placed on the island by General Washington, within a day, one thousand troops were brought in to build structures to defend against the British in the harbor. In August of 1776, the island’s newly added weaponry fired upon British ships attempting to move north of the city. They in turn fired back with cannon balls (still being found in 2012). The British again gained control of Governors Island and New York City before losing the Revolutionary War shortly after.
After the war, the island became the site of a racetrack and summer resort and for a short time was used to quarantine. In more than 350 years of the island’s recorded history, other past lives include it being a pasture, timberland, game preserve, tobacco plantation, garrison, arsenal, prison, and base for the coast guard, before finally being turned over to the city and opened to the public as parkland in 2006.
Governors Island is also closely tied to aviation. Like Floyd Bennett Field in south Brooklyn, Governors Island has a lesser-known history of ambitious and record breaking flights. One in which Wilbur Wright made the first flight over American waters, crossing the harbor to fly around the Statue of Liberty and up the Hudson River with millions of spectators lining the waterfront. The island was also home to an aviation-training center and was moving in the direction of becoming a municipal airport, had the army not commissioned Building 400.
Also known as Liggett Hall, Building 400, designed by the reputable McKim, Mead and White, was believed to have been the longest building in the world upon its completion in 1930. At one thousand feet in length, the Neo-Georgian style building was constructed on landfill from the 6-train tunnel dig. On each side are wings that extend back 250 feet and in the center of the superstructure is a three-story archway inscribed with MCMXXIX (1929). At each corner of the roof are matching spiked cupolas and a fifth larger one centered above the arch. According to legend, the structure was erected by the army with intentions of thwarting Mayor LaGuardia’s plans for a municipal airport on the island because the building’s spread across almost the entire width of the island doesn’t provide enough straightaway for airplane runways. Could you imagine LaGuardia being on Governors Island? I couldn’t think of a worse place. Liggett Hall, the building that prevented the airport, was considered the centerpiece of the 1930’s “Island Beautiful” program and was most likely given extra attention by the Army so the idea of demolishing it would be unthinkable.
Since 2010, the city has committed over $260 million to restore the historic buildings and to build new parkland. Artist studios have popped up in a former military structure and a city public school for 430 students also opened. Building 400 is awaiting a second life, or a third or fourth for that matter. The drawn out interiors show signs of a relatively long abandonment. The walls have begun to strip themselves of their paint and birds have found refuge in some of the attic space. I spent over an hour walking the floors and still only managed to cover about half of the building. At one point I walked into a room lit with florescent lights. I’ve found this to be a common occurrence but it still always puts me on edge. I walked a bit further and heard a humming down the main hall. I followed it to an electrical closet buzzing like a transformer ready to explode and took it as a sign to leave. Only then did I realize why the building had the electric on. The city had plopped down Dippin’ Dots and soda vending machines at each of the building’s front facing doors, effectively shaming the building’s grandeur as much as slapping on McDonalds ads would have. Masses of extension cords exited through windows to power them all. My theory is that they couldn’t afford locks so instead physically just blocked the doors with vending machines while also considering it a lucrative revenue source. Whatever the reason, one thing was for sure: This was likely the highest concentration of vending machines to people in New York City. Talk about convenience.
Directly across from the Liggett Hall and its wall of vending machines are eight Romanesque and Colonial Revival homes of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. The homes are collectively known as Regiment Row but because they were built at the water’s edge (before any landfill was added), they were commonly referred to as Hurricane Row. Had the landfill not been added, these homes likely would have ended up on the coast of Staten Island in the wake of Hurricane Sandy. Liggett Hall splits Governors Island like the railroad tracks dividing two sides of a neighborhood. Everything of significance on Governors Island sits north of Building 400, while south of it is the 103 acre landfilled portion; home to architecturally offensive single story and high-rise residential buildings and a rundown industrial section, all for the most part built within the last half century. Most, or possibly all of the structures sitting on landfill, with the exception of Liggett Hall, will be demolished in the near future.
In 2010, one of the seven-story residential buildings was set on fire by the FDNY so engineers from NYU Polytech could study the effects of wind on fire. The one set to flames also happened to have been half demolished at the time. I traveled up to the fifth floor on the intact side of the building then walked up to the demolition line for a clear section view of the charred and half-demolished building. This sweeping view completely exposed not only the innards of the building, but the entire southern half of Governors Island. Almost all of the buildings on the landfilled half of the island are featureless, cheap and unmaintained. (Apologies if I’m offending anyone who spent many years living there.) The future of Governors Island’s southern half is in the hands of Leslie Koch, president of the Trust for Governors Island, and she appears have a pretty clear vision of what should be done. She rejects the conventional look-but-don’t-touch installations in many of the city’s public spaces and is pushing for “a rare and precious thing: a space designed for the way people actually behave rather than the way architects think they ought to.” Kudos to that but lets hope the statement holds weight. Something we’ll see in coming years.
Got a good idea for restoring the island? The Trust for Governors Island is looking for suggestions.