Most people are not aware that New York City had a ring of forts built around its ports and harbor to protect the city from invaders. After the War of 1812, no invader ever managed to attack our city by sea, but the forts remained, nonetheless. They are among our most interesting historic sites, but we rarely hear about them, unless one is threatened by something worse than foreign invaders, and that’s an attack by the bloodthirsty pens of budget cutters.
Many of these forts were quite extensive in their day, housing men, armaments and supplies. But over the years, as they’ve been decommissioned and scaled down, most of them now are only a fraction of their original selves, leaving perhaps one or two buildings intact, if that. Fort Totten is different, and that makes it one of New York City’s most fascinating ex-military sites.
The United States government bought the land in 1857, right before the Civil War. The land had been part of the Willets family holdings, and the fort was known in the beginning as the Fort at Willets Point. Construction began in 1862, as the war raged on. The fort sits at the head of Little Neck Bay, where the East River widens and becomes Long Island Sound. Fort Schuyler, at Throggs Neck, in the Bronx, was directly across the bay. The two fortifications were a mighty protection from enemy ships trying to enter the harbor via the East River.
The Officer’s Club at Fort Totten was built in the 1870s, during a time when most of the fort’s temporary buildings were being rebuilt as permanent structures. The officer’s club was originally a one story building with a corner tower. It had classic castle-style crenellations at the roofline, and was nicknamed “the Castle.” By the mid-1880s, the building was enlarged to the present day three story building. The inspiration for the design is said to be the stone library at West Point, built in 1842, now demolished.
Architecturally speaking, the Officer’s Club is in the Gothic Revival Style of architecture. There are many different aspects of Gothic Revival style, and one of them is a fascination with all of the forms of medieval architecture, not just classic Gothic cathedrals. Castles were very much “in,” and crenellated or “castellated” style buildings can be found as homes, armories, police stations and other buildings built in the 1870s-1890s.
The much expanded Officer’s Club highlighted the greater role the fort played in the 1880s. During that decade, the Army spent a lot of money upgrading the fort, with expanded barracks, officer’s and family housing, a library, museum, new mess hall, laboratories, storerooms, a theatre, even a YMCA. They joined a large Civil War-era hospital. The Fort became the home base of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which was based here between 1866 and 1902. In 1898, the fort was renamed for General Joseph Gilbert Totten, the longest serving Chief Engineer of the United States Army, who served from 1838 until his death in 1864.
The expansion of this building was completed in 1887, and the building served as the Officer’s Mess Hall and Club for the Army Corps of Engineers School of Application. They used the club for only 15 years. In 1902, the Corps of Engineers moved out of Fort Totten and headed to Washington DC for their new permanent home. They took their engineering library and museum with them. The Castle became the officer’s club for the remaining garrison. Fort Totten was in heavy use between the two World Wars, as well as during the Cold War that followed. There were even Nike missiles at the ready here in the 1950s.
But by the 1970s, the usefulness of the fort was waning. Modern warfare didn’t need antiquated forts anymore. The army, embroiled in the Viet Nam War, paid less and less attention to the fort, before abandoning it in 1974, except for a small part of it used as an Army Reserve Post. Between 1970 and 1974, the Officer’s Club was used as a New York City Job Corps Center. When the Job Corps left, the building was empty for over ten years.
Most of Fort Totten still belonged to the Department of Defense. By the 1980s, parts were still being used by NYPD for training exercises, as well as St. John’s University. After much intense lobbying, the City of New York was deeded some of the fort land for a public park in 1987. In 2001, they got over 93 acres to expand the park, which included most of the base land and structures.
In 1986, preservationists got the Officers Club placed on the State and National Registers of Historic Places. By that time, the building belonged to the Bayside Historical Society, which was beginning an on-going restoration of the building for use as the organization’s headquarters, as well as a place for events, exhibits and archive storage. With the help of NY State Senator Frank Padavan, a retired Army Corps of Engineers officer stationed here, the Society has raised enough funds to complete a full restoration of the exterior. They also have completed restoration of the ballroom, library and other smaller rooms. The integrity of the restoration was aided by the copious archives kept in the National Archives in Washington.
Today, Fort Totten is a popular park and a great place to explore. The Officer’s Club is once again an important part of the Fort, and the envy of any historic organization that wishes it had such a grand and important headquarters. Congratulations to the Bayside Historical Society for years of hard work in preserving and restoring a rare architectural and historic treasure. The Bayside Historical Society’s address is 208 Totten Avenue.The Castle is available for rent for weddings and other events.
(Photograph:Jim Henderson for Wikipedia)