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A Historic Guide to Governors Island

Updated: Mar 24, 2022

Governors Island feels a world apart from the rest of New York City, but it’s actually just an eight minute ferry ride away from Lower Manhattan.

A concrete walking path in Governors Island, New York lined with an abundance of green plants and yellow flowers that look like mini sunflowers.

Now open year-round, Governors Island is a home to an impressive array of cultural, environmental, educational, and recreational offerings.

Whether you’re browsing an art exhibition, riding around the island on a Citi Bike, or shopping at a pop-up market filled with local makers, you’re sure to fall in love with all the island has to offer.

There’s also so much more to the story of Governors Island beneath the surface. Every step you take is an opportunity to peel back layers of history.

If you’re interested in learning about the history of Governors Island, bike or go for a walk around the island and enjoy our audio tour, made in partnership with Open House New York and the Trust for Governors Island. The audio tour expands on the historic insights mentioned below, as well as additional points of interests, and can be experienced at your own pace.

Let’s dive in.

Lenape History

Governors Island is the ancestral homeland of the Lenape people. Whether the island was a year-round or seasonal home for the Lenape, historians aren’t sure. But historians do know that the Lenape called this land Nut Island in their language, as a nod to the chestnut, hickory, and oak trees that originated here. You’ll see these old growth trees scattered throughout the island’s historic district.

Exterior view of the brick structure known as Castle Williams in Governors Island, New York.

Castle Williams

If you were to visit Castle Williams during the 1800s, chances are you’d meet a military engineer named Jonathan Williams. Williams became a commandant with the Army Corps of Engineers, constructing this fort just in time for the Second War of Independence in 1812. The British blockaded New York Harbor, and if it hadn’t been for this castle, the United States might have lost New York to Great Britain. Castle Williams went on to play a role in a large defense system that included Fort Jay and the South Battery here on the island, along with Castle Clinton, Fort Gibson at Ellis Island, and Fort Wood at Liberty Island, in addition to being a prison during the Civil War.

In 1965, the Coast Guard opened Castle Williams back up to the community as part of the Governors Island Historic Monument. It earned a spot on the National Register of Historic Places in 1972. During those years, Castle Williams transformed into a more diverse space, becoming a youth community center, nursery, woodworking shop, museum, photography lab, and art studio.

With the backdrop of the New York City Skyline, a small, white, wooden, house-like structure called the Cabin, a permanent installation by British artist Rachel Whiteread, is surrounded by plants and pink flowers.

The Cabin

“Cabin” is a permanent installation by British artist Rachel Whiteread that creates a disorienting contrast between two built environments -- the pastoral and the urban. In 2015, she created a concrete cast of a simple cabin from a New England shed, surrounded by bronze casts of bottles, cans, and other refuse, many of which were sourced on the island. These found objects point to the island itself, as a natural space altered by humans. Sitting on the edge of Discovery Hill, this installation contrasts the pastoral life with everything chaotic and urban that gives New York City its singular energy.

Exterior view of Liggett Hall, a massive bracket-shaped building with a tall archway toward the center, located in Governors Island, New York.

Liggett Hall

Liggett Hall is a massive bracket-shaped building with a tall archway toward the center. If you pass through it, you’ll notice it’s a dividing line between the historic district and the new park. Liggett Hall was the largest military building in the world when it was built, and it maintained that distinction until the construction of the Pentagon during WWII.

Liggett Hall’s architects were McKim, Mead and White, the same team that gave New York City the original Penn Station.

St. Cornelius Chapel

St. Cornelius Chapel looks as though it’s as old as the city of New York, but this limestone Gothic structure wasn’t the first church to stand here. This chapel replaced the original in 1906. Back in 1846, Governors Island had no church, but it did have an Army Chaplain. Reverend John McVickar held Episcopal services under the trees when the sky was clear and the ground was dry. But he needed a brick and mortar church. Within a year, he had raised enough money to build a wooden chapel. In 1868, it became a branch of Trinity Parish, the same division of the historic Trinity Church you may have visited on Wall Street.

Eventually, St. Cornelius was not the only place of worship on Governors Island. It was joined by a Catholic Church and Jewish Synagogue.

Urban farm located in Governors Island, New York with numerous garden beds with vegetables growing in the dirt.

Urban Farm

Be sure to check out GrowNYC’s Teaching Garden, a one-acre urban farm. Since 2015, this garden has been open to students, visitors, and anyone with a desire to grow something. During the pandemic, GrowNYC shifted its focus to full-scale food production and yielded around 20,000 pounds of food, as compared to their customary 10,000 pounds.

Not only does GrowNYC get the local community involved in growing food, but also they partner with nonprofits in the area. In addition to their longstanding link to Earth Matter, a nonprofit that promotes composting, the urban farm partnered with the Black Feminist Project to transport food relief boxes of produce from the teaching garden to families in the South Bronx.

Fort Jay

Fort Jay is a military compound whose story involves a moat, a ghost, and other mythical tales. The fort was named for John Jay, a founding father and first Chief Justice of the US Supreme Court. Fitting to Governors Island’s name, Jay was serving his term as Governor of New York when this fort adopted his name. A few years later, the fort was rebuilt and given a new name — Fort Columbus — but popular favor must have shifted back to New York’s local leaders, because it became Fort Jay once again in 1904.

Colonels Row

Colonels Row is the name for the neighborhood of charming 19th century brick and wood-framed houses that once housed officers of the US Army. If you venture to the north end of Colonels Row, you’ll find a former military hospital that was built in 1933. It’s been empty since 1965. Colonels Row provided a quiet life for officers who wished to escape the chaotic city. Back then, the Colonels enjoyed now-priceless views of New York Harbor. Now, these houses host educational and cultural organizations who offer programming to the public.


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