Big Changes for 2012 on Island

bldg 4
Building 4 was built in 1855 as officer housing. It faces Nolan Park and will be closed for up to two years.

I’m back to writing about Governors Island as the new season is upon us. The 2012 season will feature drastic cuts in programs and access to the island, which is only open on Saturdays and Sundays (plus Memorial Day and Labor Day) beginning May 26.

Visitors must make do with 30 days this season to see the island. The National Park Service provides limited access to the island on Wednesdays, Thursdays and Fridays (June-Sept.), but a ranger accompanies visitors at all times. No Friday afternoon solo bike rides to Picnic Point this year.

A limited amount of construction work on the island took place in the off-season, however, no old buildings were knocked down. Big sections of the park are closed in 2012, including the largest area, South Island Fields. This means that there will not be a Veuve Clicquot Polo Classic (moved to New Jersey), Governors Ball Music Festival (now on Randall’s Island) or Little League baseball games. Nolan Park is also closed as the historic officers quarters of Generals Row and Colonels Row are renovated. (Colonels Row is buildings 15-20, not the Brick Row buildings 403-410 as the island’s signage erroneously shows).

What to make of this? After huge increases in attendance over the past several years? It is funny, because by coincidence last week I wrote about another historic New York landmark that underwent a multi-million dollar renovation, the Algonquin Hotel. The difference is that the Algonquin has buckets of money coming in every day from paying guests. Governors Island still has not landed a development deal that would make the island self-sustaining and well funded. And for the federal portion of the property, the National Monument that is controlled by the National Park Service, the feds are still giving all the money to the Statue of Liberty, and only peanuts to keep up Castle Williams and Fort Jay.

So what’s been happening on the island, and what changes are in store for 2012 and 2013?

Let’s start with the good.

castle williams
One of the best things about Castle Williams is that visitors can access the roof in 2012.

The National Park Service has been doing the best with the limited amount of funds the Department of the Interior gives to the Governors Island National Monument. The new season is a good time to visit the rangers because it is the 200th anniversary of the War of 1812 and one of the most historic moments in Governors Island’s military past. I admit I was more than a little annoyed that the NPS chose last year to have Castle Williams closed, and missed marking the fortification’s 1811 opening. The NPS has now scheduled it to be open this season. For the first time, visitors can go up on the parapet roof, in small groups guided by a ranger. Timed entry tickets will be necessary from 10 a.m. to 4:15 p.m.; there will be 25-minute tours every half hour of the interior and roof that begin at 10:30. This is exciting because it will provide stunning views of the harbor (and the construction work on the rest of the island).

The feds are also making improvements to Fort Jay and repairing the 1790s sculpture above the sallyport entrance. There are guided tours of the Fort Jay interior from the rangers.

Even though daytrippers can only use the island on Saturdays and Sundays, the National Park Service has guided tours on other days from June-September. The rangers offer guided access to the island starting June 13: on Wednesdays, Thursdays, and Fridays during the public access season a limited number can tour the National Monument. All programs below are free, but require tickets. Click here for the schedule and tour times.

The work on Soissons Dock was a big part of the off-season work.

The part of Governors Island not managed by the National Park Service is run by the Trust for Governors Island. The Trust made the decision to work on maintenance and improvements to the park in 2012-2013, before the major renovation work on the island begins. The work started over the winter on the Soissons Dock, the main ferry access point. It was dug up and replaced. A new entrance is being unveiled.

The Parade Ground is the sloping grassy area around Fort Jay. At one time the Army and Coast Guard used the area for drilling and parades; it also had a tiny 9-hole golf course for more than 100 years. In the 1980s part of it was chopped out for a motel and tennis courts, both demolished in the last few years. The Trust is taking the parade ground and regrading it “to allow for flexible field sports” according to its blog. What the hell is a flexible field sport, and will it include organized quidditch? Bulldozers are moving the earth around to make it flat. I’d bet $100 they dig up some interesting items.

There will be a huge section of the park closed for the next two years, and this is South Island Fields. The Governors Ball had an amazing debut last year, more than 10,000 people turned out. It also was the site of celebrity polo games. This part of the park is part of the Master Plan and is being renovated in 2012-2013, but it’s anyone’s guess if outdoor concerts will return in 2014.

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Nolan Park dates to 1871 when it was "the green" in front of the officer housing. It is closed for two years.

One of the glummest things to report is that Nolan Park’s historic officer homes won’t be open until 2014. These are the yellow family homes that were built in the late 19th and early 20th centuries for army officers and their families. The Trust is repairing and maintaining the homes. This is vitally important. I saw first hand what can happen if they don’t: last summer I was at Fort Hancock in Sandy Hook, New Jersey. Army housing exactly like Governors Island is on Fort Hancock, which was used for coastal defense and had Nike missile batteries until 1974. Now most of the buildings are falling down shells and eyesores. Luckily for Governors Island, the Coast Guard took good care of the buildings into the 1990s.

The Trust has scheduled arts events and food vendors to return to the island. Newyorkology has the best preview of what is happening on the island this summer. My two favorites are returning, the Figment Festival and Michael Arenella and His Dreamland Orchestra Jazz Age Weekend.

I’ll be leading a few walking tours on Governors Island myself. One thing I’ve learned as a visitor to the island is that it is always changing, and 2012 promises to be on the biggest years of change in a long time.

I’ll see you out there soon.

Kevin C. Fitzpatrick has written and edited seven books with ties to New York history, including "The Governors Island Explorer's Guide" and "World War I New York: A Guide to the City’s Enduring Ties to the Great War." Kevin is a licensed sightseeing guide and has been leading walking tours since 1999. He resides in Manhattan.