An hour’s drive and a boat ride north of New York City, Pollepel Island is a six-acre wedge of rock parting the waters of the Hudson River. Looking from the near bank, the view of the island is like a window into a fantasy novel. A castle stands there, crumbling slowly into ruins.
Bannerman Castle, however picturesque, is nonetheless a bit of a fiction. No courts were ever held here, no lord ever in residence. The castle was the folly of late nineteenth-century military chandler Francis Bannerman built in 1901 as a warehouse for his arsenal of military surplus purchased after the Civil War. It was never finished, and fire has gutted the floors and roof and left only the concrete and re-bar walls standing to intrigue passersby. The island is off-limits to the public.
But this summer, it has become the setting for a truly beautiful art installation named Constellation by artist Melissa McGill. McGill, from the nearby town of Beacon, has seen the ruins regularly for years, mostly during her commute on the nearby Metro-North Railroad, whose tracks curve along the river not far from the island.
“With a ruin, it’s all about what’s missing,” said McGill. “I wondered what else was here before. Not only the structure, but everything that came before.” And so she did her research, not only into Bannerman and his legacies, but into the island’s entire known history, through it’s strategic value in the American Revolution and beyond to the folklore of the Lenape Tribe whose lands once included the entire region.
Her installation, built under the aegis of the state, the Lenape Center, and the National Endowment for the Arts and with the aid of over 100 volunteers, consists of 17 spire-like towering poles, ranging between 40 and 80 feet tall, planted around the still-standing ruins. Each pole holds aloft a brilliant blue-white LED in a glass globe.
Each night at dusk, the lights twinkle on one by one, and remain on for two hours. They will do so for at least the next two years, a small local constellation visible to locals and commuters on the nearby tracks and bridges.