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Castle Clinton

Castle Clinton

Also known as Castle Garden, Emigrant Landing Depot, New York Aquarium, Castle Clinton National Monument, Fort Clinton, and the West Battery

Built in 1808, Castle Clinton was the focus of one of the first major preservation-related battles in New York City.

Location: Battery Park, New York, NY  |  Google Maps
People: Albert S. Bard, Walter BingerC. C. Burlingham, Oscar L. Chapman, DeWitt Clinton, Carl Feiss, Stanley Isaacs, George McAneny, Robert McAneny, Robert Moses, Pierce Trowbridge Wetter, Harry Woodring  
Organizations: American Scenic and Historic Preservation Society, Battery Conservancy, Central Committee of Organizations Opposing the Battery Bridge, Fine Arts Federation, Greenwich Village Historical Society, National Park Service
Places: Brooklyn Battery Bridge, Battery Park, Ellis Island, New York Harbor, Statue of Liberty 
Public Policy: Aquarium Bill
Above: The Aquarium, Old Castle Garden [Castle Clinton], New York, N.Y., c. 1900; Courtesy of the Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division

Castle Clinton was originally built in 1808 as a fortification for the New York Harbor. It has undergone various adaptive reuses throughout its history. Its location, the tip of Lower Manhattan in Battery Park, was in close proximity to the original Dutch fort. Between the years of 1808 and 1811, it was called the West Battery.1 The structure was used as a military headquarters in the War of 1812, and renamed Castle Clinton in 1815 in honor of Mayor De Witt Clinton, who served as mayor during the war.2 The United States government ceded the fort to the City of New York in 1824. It was then renamed Castle Garden, and converted into an entertainment center emerging as “a central point of the city’s public and social life.”3 The first demonstration of the telegraph as well as the debut of opera diva Jenny Lind both took place at Castle Garden.4 In 1845, a domed roof was placed on top of the structure. Later, between 1855 and 1890, the structure served as the principal immigration station in the United States, and admitted approximately 8.5 million immigrants.5 On December 10, 1896, the structure was once again altered by architects McKim, Mead & White to serve recreational purposes, this time as the New York Aquarium.6 It was one of the City’s most popular attractions, admitting over 2.5 million visitors a year.7 The Aquarium shut down in 1941, and the fish were relocated to the Bronx Zoo.8 Castle Clinton was designated as a National Monument in 1946.9 The property was then ceded to the Federal Government, so that funds could be allocated for its renovation. Castle Clinton was renovated to its original appearance as a fort and converted into a museum by the National Park Service.

In 1946, Castle Clinton became a National Monument, and in 1965, it was designated a New York City Landmark. After Castle Clinton was saved from demolition in 1946, the National Park Service restored it to its original appearance as a fortification. It now serves not only as a museum, but also as the ticket office for the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island ferry. It also houses the Battery Conservancy, created in 1994 to "rebuild and revitalize the Battery…and its major landmark, Castle Clinton National Monument."10 The Conservancy now serves as the current curator of Castle Clinton. The site reopened to the general public in 1975, and is today known as the Castle Clinton National Monument.11

February 6, 1941: Robert Moses announces his intention to demolish the Aquarium (Castle Clinton)

May 28, 1941: A coalition of historic, art, and landscape societies coalesce to preserve Castle Clinton

July 30, 1946: U.S. Senate approves the Aquarium Bill

April 28, 1949: U.S. Senate approves $166,750 federal funds for restoring Castle Clinton

July 1950: Castle Clinton is designated a National Monument

November 23, 1965: Castle Clinton is designated a New York City Landmark

The first threat to Castle Clinton’s future preservation was the proposed Brooklyn Battery Bridge. In 1939, Robert Moses proposed a plan of parkways and bridges that would link Manhattan to Brooklyn, Queens, and the Bronx. Originally designed as a tunnel, Robert Moses felt a better solution would be to build a bridge from Battery Park in Lower Manhattan to Brooklyn.12 In response to these plans, the general public and some city officials felt that such a bridge would drastically mar the “beauty of the approach from the ocean at Battery Park.”13 In addition to the high costs for construction, the real estate values in lower Manhattan would have been deeply impacted and it would have posed a potential danger in times of war by affecting ships' navigation routes. The "fearsome foursome" of Robert McAneny (President of the Regional Plan Association), Stanley Isaacs (Manhattan Borough President), Albert S. Bard (advocate for civic beauty), and C. C. Burlingham (admiralty lawyer) organized the Central Committee of Organizations Opposing the Battery Bridge to prevent the bridge's construction.14 In order for Robert Moses to resume plans for constructing the bridge, he needed the approval from numerous City government groups. More importantly, he needed federal approval from the War Department, since it affected a large navigable body of water.15 On July 17, 1939, Secretary of War, Harry Woodring, decided against approving the Brooklyn Battery Bridge construction for matters of defense in times of war. This decision was affirmed by President Roosevelt.16

After the rejection of the Brooklyn Battery Bridge proposal, Robert Moses reverted back to the original plans of constructing the Brooklyn Battery Tunnel.
 Robert Moses claimed the construction of the tunnel would directly impact Castle Clinton (which at that time was the New York Aquarium) and called for its demolition.17
 Yet Walter Binger, engineer and commissioner of Borough Works in Manhattan, asserted that the idea of the tunnel's construction undermining the walls of Castle Clinton was both “ridiculous” and “absurd.”18 This further led City officials and the general public to believe Moses was out for revenge for being denied permission to construct the Brooklyn Battery Bridge.19 There was an outcry from concerned citizens who repeatedly wrote passionate letters to The New York Times referring to Castle Clinton as an important landmark and an "old friend" worth preserving.20 The significance it held for immigrants who had passed through its gates to the promise of “liberty, a new life, and a new world” still resonated among New Yorkers.21 Robert Moses argued against the fort's significance on an aesthetic level, calling it the "red wart” on the tip of lower Manhattan.22 He also claimed that Castle Clinton did not warrant protection because it had no historical significance. He reasoned that since "a shot had never been fired” from the fort, and because no one would want to memorialize its immigrant history, it was ultimately unworthy of preserving.23 Furthermore, he argued, the repairs needed to maintain this site would cost a minimum of $200,000.24

However, Robert Moses's arguments only galvanized civic support for protecting Castle Clinton.
 George McAneny, President of the American Scenic and Historic Preservation Society, organized 18 associations in opposition to the demolition of Castle Clinton.25 Pierce Trowbridge Wetter, treasurer of the Greenwich Village Historical Society, filed an injunction to keep the New York Aquarium opened in 1941. Another injunction was filed in 1942 to prevent the fort's demolition.26 These injunctions bought time in order to garner civic support for its protection.
 A design competition was initiated by the Fine Arts Federation in order to show that the park could be redesigned with Castle Clinton intact.27 The Architectural League also launched an exhibit illustrating the different historic periods of the fort.28 Carl Feiss, Director of the Housing and Planning division of Columbia University’s architecture school, argued in favor of protecting Castle Clinton, restoring it to its original appearance, and reusing it as a museum.29 Despite the efforts of the community, the Board of Estimate approved its demolition in an 11-5 vote.30 The demolition was postponed due to the U.S.'s entry into World War II.
 However, the war did not stop the initial demolition. Castle Clinton’s roof was removed, and the McKim, Mead & White section was destroyed. All that remained were the fort's original walls. A fence was then put up around the park and fort hiding the walls from the general public.31

After surrounding Castle Clinton with a fence, Robert Moses claimed that there was nothing left to save of Castle Clinton. Since the fence walls towering over Castle Clinton and Battery Park were so high, George McAneny convinced Walter Binger to do an official inspection of the site. After visiting the site, Binger discovered that Moses had falsified these claims.32 George McAneny persuaded the New York Herald Tribune to send a plane over the site to take an aerial photograph. The photo was published on the front page of the newspaper.
 Eventually the State Senate in Albany passed legislation to give Castle Clinton back to the Federal Government.
 On April 29, 1949, the bill was passed by President Truman and $166,750 in federal funds were allocated for restoration.33 By July 1950 Castle Clinton was officially designated a National Monument.


The success at Castle Clinton certainly bolstered the preservation movement in New York City, but in a broader sense it reverberated nationwide. The preservation of a single structure that had both cultural and historical significance to the public view led to a re-examination of other historic places and buildings worthy of protection in New York City. The National Park Service noted George McAneny’s efforts on behalf of Castle Clinton. McAneny’s national allies saw his efforts as “a means for uniting preservationists into an organization that could combine the strength and fervor of the private historical and preservation field with the professional skills developed by the National Park Service."34 These ideas were eloquently articulated during the commemoration of Castle Clinton by Secretary of Interior, Oscar L. Chapman:

“the saving of Castle Clinton evidences a new and deeper recognition of the need of preserving the diminishing landmarks of our history as an essential part of our National Heritage.”35

Main gate showing Richard J. Koke at Castle Clinton, August 2, 1961; Courtesy of David Hirsch
  • Fine Arts Federation Records at the Archives of American Art
    Finding Aid for this collection is available on the Archives of American Art's website.

  • "The Reminisces of George McAneny," a series of interviews held by Professor Allen Nevins and Mr. Dean Albertson, January-February 1949, under the auspices of the Oral History Research Office of Columbia University. Permission to quote or cite from the transcript must be obtained from this office.

  • Oral History with Bronson Binger
  • New York Preservation Archive Project
  • 174 East 80th Street
  • New York, NY 10075
  • Tel: (212) 988-8379
  • Email: [email protected]
  1. “Castle Clinton: National Monument: New York: History & Culture,” National Park Service, 4 February 2016.
  2. “History of the Battery,” The Battery Conservancy, 4 February 2016.
  3. 
George McAneny, letter to the editor, The New York Times, 19 September 1945.
  4. 
Ibid.
  5. “History of the Battery,” The Battery Conservancy, 4 February 2016.
  6. 
Anthony C. Wood, Preserving New York: Winning the Right to Protect a City’s Landmarks (New York: Routledge 2008), page 56.
  7. 
Ibid, page 56.
  8. 
Robert A. Caro, The Power Broker: Robert Moses and The Fall of New York (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1974).
  9. 
Staff, “Aquarium Becomes A U.S. Monument,” The New York Times, 19 July 1950.
  10. “About the Battery Conservancy,” The Battery Conservancy, 4 February 2016.
  11. “Castle Clinton: National Monument: New York: History & Culture,” National Park Service, 4 February 2016.
  12. 
Robert A. Caro, The Power Broker: Robert Moses and The Fall of New York (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1974).
  13. 
Ibid.
  14. 
Anthony C. Wood, Preserving New York: Winning the Right to Protect a City’s Landmarks (New York: Routledge, 2008), page 48.
  15. 
Robert A. Caro, The Power Broker: Robert Moses and The Fall of New York (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1974).
  16. 
Ibid.
  17. 
Ibid.
  18. 
Robert A. Caro, The Power Broker: Robert Moses and The Fall of New York (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1974), page 679.
  19. 
Ibid, page 680.
  20. 
Ibid.
  21. 
Ibid.
  22. 
Robert Moses, letter to the editor, The New York Times, 24 February 1941.
  23. 
Ibid.
  24. 
Robert A. Caro, The Power Broker: Robert Moses and The Fall of New York (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1974).
  25. 
Anthony C. Wood, Preserving New York: Winning the Right to Protect a City’s Landmarks (New York: Routledge, 2008), page 48.
  26. 
Staff, “Aquarium Safe Until Oct. 30,” New York Sun, 21 October 1941.
  27. 
“Competition Sponsored by the Fine Arts Federation of New York for the Selection of an Alternative Design for the Development of Battery Park,” August 1941, Albert S. Bard Papers, New York Public Library.
  28. 
Anthony C. Wood, Preserving New York: Winning the Right to Protect a City’s Landmarks (New York: Routledge 2008), page 59.
  29. 
“Carl Feiss, a Pioneer of Urban Preservation, Dies at 90,” The New York Times, 27 October 1997.
  30. 
Robert A. Caro, The Power Broker: Robert Moses and The Fall of New York (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1974), Chapter 30.
  31. 
Ibid.
  32. 
Robert A. Caro, The Power Broker: Robert Moses and The Fall of New York (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1974), Chapter 30.
  33. 
Staff, “Aquarium Becomes A U.S. Monument,” The New York Times, 19 July 1950.
  34. 
Charles B. Hosmer, Jr., Preservation Comes of Age: From Williamsburg to the National Trust, 1926-1949: Volume I (Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1981).
  35. Staff, “Aquarium Becomes A U.S. Monument,” The New York Times, 19 July 1950.