Every local citizen should have the use of it, for more than just a few days a year
By Alison Rooney
Prior to Sept. 11, 2001, visitors used to arrive literally by the boatload at Constitution Island (CI). The always-full tours departing on Wednesdays and Thursdays from South Dock at West Point (WP) discharged about 200 passengers a week during the May through October season. Last year, the third year in which the centerpiece of the site — the Warner home — was shut down for repairs and restoration, the island saw 20 to 40 weekly visitors only, the low numbers compounded by WP’s tighter security resulting in closure to tourists. Without the type of “impulse tourism,” which took place on the spot in the pre-9/11 years, the numbers have dwindled. Now visitors to CI have to plan and book in advance.
The 280-acre island holds the ruins of Revolutionary War fortifications, and is famous for the Great Chain that was placed across the Hudson during the Revolutionary War, as well as the home, which retains a stone wall from the Revolutionary War era, and the Victorian wing of eight rooms, constructed in 1836, which housed the Warner family and had been functioning as a house museum until the closure.
With sightseeing and also education program numbers down so drastically, the Constitution Island Association (CIA), the nonprofit organization formed in 1916 and responsible for much connected with the property, is very concerned about the slow pace of this much-needed restoration. They are turning to the local community to support their efforts in appealing to the garrison commander and superintendent at WP, of which Constitution Island is officially a part, to work at a faster pace. From the perspective of the CIA, the process has been way too slow thus far; they are urging the public to get behind them with a letter-writing campaign asking WP officials to “refocus your priorities and place the restoration of the Warner House at the top of your list.”
Constitution Island, a National Registered Landmark, was bequeathed to WP by Anna Warner, one of the famed “Warner sisters” whose family lived in the house from 1836 to 1915. The 1908 letter sent on her behalf to President Theodore Roosevelt read, in part:
I take pleasure in tendering as a gift to the United States … Constitution Island, opposite West Point, embracing about 230 acres of upland and 50 acres of meadow, the same to be an addition to the Military Reservation of West Point and to be for the use of the United States Military Academy. My attention has been called … to the importance of adding this island to the West Point Reservation, and to the unsuccessful efforts of successive administrations of the Military Academy and Secretaries of War to secure the necessary appropriation to purchase it. In historic interest it is intimately connected with West Point. It formed during the Revolution a part of the defenses of the Hudson River … The guns mounted upon the Island then commanded the river channel … and to the island was attached one end of the iron chain intended to prevent the British warships from sailing up the Hudson. Washington’s Life Guard was mustered out on this island in 1783. It is distant only about three hundred yards from West Point, and in its present natural condition forms an essential part of the landscape as viewed from the West Point shore…
Three years ago, the CIA was informed by WP that a study had determined that the Warner House was structurally deficient and the house would be shut down and unavailable to the public until a host of improvements were made. Since that time, a showing of a DVD has taken the place of the actual physical tour through the house during the tour of the island. It was generally envisioned that repairs would take one to two years. The contents of the home, owned by the CIA, have been in storage ever since. A partial list of the proposed repairs is contained in the Draft Environmental Assessment:
Proposed Action: Critical repairs, maintenance, and upgrades to the interior and exterior of the historic Warner House, including work in the following systems: architectural, structural, mechanical/ heating/ ventilation, electrical, security, fire protection, and drainage improvements. A new dry hydrant will be installed to access Hudson River water for emergency water supply for fire protection. Site drainage improvements will be made in various areas of the property, including the yard of the Warner House, at the Caretaker’s Cabin, and around the new buildings. Finally, existing access roads will be widened in some areas, and some new pathways and parking will be constructed near the Warner House.
Richard de Koster is the executive director of the association, and he is heading the efforts to speed up the restoration process. Despite good relations between WP and the CIA, there are major bureaucratic hurdles to be overcome. In de Koster’s description, the garrison commander and the superintendent make the decisions, based upon a list of priorities set by the Pentagon and vetted by Congress, which of course is always looking for ways to cut funding. With all that is going on in the world, and a $350 billion budget each year to carve up — largely into big projects — the Warner House obviously does not factor highly on that list. In addition, the turnover of the high-powered administrators at West Point, with most appointed for a few years then moving on, means most do not have lengthy ties to this area and thus may not be fully aware of the historic importance of the site. De Koster sees the CIA’s job as “moving this issue up the ladder” through a campaign raising awareness of the house and its significance. He feels that the coming Bicentennial year of Putnam County is exactly the right time to do this, and that having such a critical piece of history neglected at this time is “unacceptable.” As part of WP, Constitution Island is now open to the public on a limited number of days a year, on dates set by WP. De Koster feels “Ideally we should be open 300 days a year for recreational purposes. That is my focus and ambition. West Point’s focus is different; they have security concerns.”
Speaking on behalf of the Garrison of West Point, Wilfred Plumley, deputy to Garrison Commander Col. Mike Tarsa, agreed that there was a “great rapport” between the garrison and the CIA, and also said “there is a great desire [to do the restoration work] but you see on the news how budgets are now — we’re taking a big hit on funds for facilities; some things are not in our control. Our number one priority is to take care of the barracks for our cadets.” Plumley described the bids as coming in much higher than what had been budgeted and anticipated.
Describing the current scenario as “doing what must be done, but we can’t really tell you what will happen because it depends on the budget situation,” Plumley continued: “It’s no small budget either — we are talking millions of dollars. What would normally cost several hundred thousand dollars for repairs in a regular home instead costs millions on a historic property.” Pointing out work which has been done, including moisture control in the basement, and the bracing of windows, as well as the technical preservation plans drawn up by a specialist, Plumley said, that “we have the best information on how to properly restore it and preserve the Warner family’s history, but the funds are driving the train.”
Metro-North, another impediment to CIA’s plan, has a say in all this as well, because a train track runs through the property. In 1840 the railroad requested a right-of-way from the Warner family. In return they built a carriage road, now located at the back of the Metro-North parking lot. Metro-North has permitted access on a certain, limited number of days each year, and it is on those days that CI opens its doors to the general public for events such as Family Day, Garden Day, Re-enactment Weekend and the Seafood Barbeque fundraiser. De Koster calls Metro-North “a powerful bureaucracy which wants to stay away from problems — they’re happy with the relationship we have now, but from our perspective we would like to expand the trail to open up hiking and recreation on the island to a much greater extent.”
There has been some progress made over the past three years. A restoration plan has been completed by an architect, with the assistance of the CIA. It has twice been put out to bid by West Point, but both times WP concluded that the bids were too high and did not award the contract to anyone. De Koster says, “Our feeling is, the more time it is out for bid, the higher the bids will get and everything will just become more costly. Combine that with the economic slump, and we’re stalled.”
Once the work is eventually done, the CIA will be able to restore the interiors. They actually own the collection of interior furniture and objects, as well as being stewards of the literature (the Warner sisters wrote over 100 books), and they manage the tours and maintain the beautiful surrounding gardens. A caretaker is provided by WP. Unlike most historic properties of its vintage, the Warner home remained in one family for a lengthy period of time and only a few months stood between Anna Warner’s death and the formation of the CIA, which took possession of all the collections in the house; therefore fortunately much is intact. In fact a photographic record of the entire downstairs exists, made before the contents were removed. The CIA was formed in 1916, and consisted of prominent members of the community including the Osborn, Gordon and Eristoff families.
De Koster plainly states the importance of the site, to WP, Putnam County and the whole country: “Constitution Island had an important place in the culture of West Point during the 19th century. Cadets had to stay at West Point for four years and Susan and Anna Warner gave them a respite and socialization. The cadets formed a close relationship with the ladies and maintained a correspondence with them for years. Constitution Island itself was the beginning of West Point, in the 18th century — it predates the establishment of the academy by 27 years. The military fortifications began at Constitution Island, before moving to the higher ground at West Point; Constitution Island is really the beginning of America’s military. It’s our Valley Forge, Yorktown, one of the great sites of the American Revolution, so we when see it bypassed, it’s upsetting — it should be the jewel. Every local citizen should have the use of it — for more than just a few days a year. In the meantime, our association is simply trying to make it through, push onwards … We have a good local board, a great group of volunteers, and a lot of support from the community. We’d like to encourage more people to become members, and to write letters. When I was first asked to become executive director of the association, there weren’t even any public bathrooms at the site. I wasn’t sure about it. But then I met volunteers whose parents and even grandparents had been volunteers too. It made me think there must be something very special about this place. I thought ‘maybe I can do this, maybe I should.’ I’m glad I did. Nothing is insurmountable.”
As for this year, school tours begin in early May and public tours on June 27, running through the end of September. Full details on visiting, as well as a comprehensive history of the island and the Warner sisters can be found at the CIA website. Also on the website, on the home page, is a draft of a suggested letter which may be sent to those in charge at WP. Their names and addresses are included as well.
Photos courtesy of CIA website