Governors Island history

How this 172-acre plot of prime real estate has managed to avoid development.

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A 172-acre chunk of prime waterside real estate that can never be developed into luxury condos, Governors Island is a secluded anomaly a scant 800 yards from lower Manhattan. The verdant commons and stately red-brick buildings evoke an Ivy League campus by way of a colonial New England village—oddly emptied of its inhabitants.


The peaceful backwater has had a tumultuous history. Initially a seasonal fishing and gathering ground for the Lenape Indians, it was particularly plentiful in nut trees, earning it the name “Noten Eylant” when the Dutch arrived in the 1620s. In 1674, the British secured it for “the benefit and accommodation of His Majesty’s Governors.” Perhaps the most colorful of these was Edward Hyde, Viscount Cornbury, Governor of New York and New Jersey from 1702 to ’08. A cousin of Queen Anne, he was alleged to be a cross-dresser (check out the portrait, said to be of Lord Cornbury in drag, at the New-York Historical Society).


The island’s strategic position cemented its future as a military outpost; by the late 19th century it was the army’s headquarters for the entire eastern U.S. When the army began to outgrow the space, the island became the site of the biggest landfill of the time, as excavated soil from the Lexington Avenue subway line was used to enlarge it by 103 acres. It took more than a decade. “The sand kept blowing up into the houses on Brick [Colonels’] Row and it ruined the grass,” says historian Ann Buttenwieser, author of a new book, Governors Island: The Jewel of New York Harbor.


The modest patch has been the backdrop for some huge events. In 1909, it launched the first overwater flight, when Wilbur Wright circled the Statue of Liberty before flying back; Fiorello La Guardia even pushed for an airport to be built there in the 1920s and ’30s. Such legendary figures as Generals Ulysses S. Grant and Douglas MacArthur had stints on the island, but in some ways life was the same as in any suburb. When the army left in the mid-’60s, the Coast Guard moved in, adding modern amenities such as a Burger King.


Although it was closed to the general public for more than 200 years, there was a precursor of its future as a leisure spot. Around the turn of the 20th century, New York’s prominent ladies began to hold an annual garden party to raise funds for the Army Relief Society—a high-profile event that was written up in the society magazines of the day. “The rich and famous came out in their beautiful gowns and hats—unbelievable hats,” recounts Buttenwieser. “They would have tea and there were tents where they sold cakes.”


Since the island opened to visitors in 2006, the program of activities—including a Jazz Age garden party—has increased dramatically. The first phase of the strategy to revitalize the island has been to draw visitors, explains Governors Island Preservation and Education Corporation (GIPEC) president Leslie Koch. The second is the continued investment in the infrastructure and preservation of the 52 historic landmarks. Eventually, they’ll all have tenants: Building 110, near the harbor, will be home to an artist-studio program slated to open this fall, and Bushwick’s New York Harbor School relocates to the island next year.The third phase is to create “a world-class set of public spaces and parks.” In 2007, a team of internationally known design firms, led by Rotterdam’s West 8, was chosen to develop the plans. “The goal was to bring the island back to life,” says Koch, “and the design does a wonderful job of knitting together the two halves of the island.” Although the details won’t be announced until later this year, one of the signature features will be new hills constructed from the debris of (nonhistoric) buildings as they’re demolished, providing even more spectacular viewpoints for harbor panoramas.


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