Aquarium and Castle Clinton at Battery Park

I haven’t blogged in a while. but I do have an entry here, and I hope to be getting more entries up soon. This one continues a series I’ve been working on, counting down the most prominent places gone from the LI and NYC area.

  Aquarium and Castle Clinton at Battery Park

The New York Aquarium was once located in Manhattan at the southern tip of Battery Park. It was housed in a picturesque round small building and offered free admission to its visitors. It had a skylit roof and was called Castle Garden. The building once stood as its own island, and was a fort. It went on to become a theater, an immigration station, and aquarium.

New York Aquarium, Circa 1900

It was originally constructed in 1810 and called the West Battery Fort (The area got the name ‘Battery’ because of the fort here ). Built in conjunction with several others nearby, the post was designed to help protect Manhattan from a potential British attack. It stood on a tiny island, connected to the mainland only by a pier-like bridge. Once the threat of attack was over, the fort became unnecessary, and ownership was passed over to New York City in 1823. It was renamed Castle Clinton to honor former New York Governor Dewitt Clinton. The name has nothing to do with Bill Clinton, who is remembered by many in Queens for his two visits to the  ‘Future Diner’ in Fresh Meadows. (The diner has since been renamed a Hooters to honor its attractive waitresses.)

In the 1820’s the fort was turned into a palatial restaurant and dinner theater called Castle Garden. The roof was enhanced with sky lights and by the 1840’s it boasted a seating capacity of over 6,000. It became a very popular venue. Its most prominent days as a theater were Septembers 11 and 13th, 1850 when legendary opera singer Jenny Lind made her first US public appearance here. Bonfires blazed on the Battery Green, bands played, all New York turned out to gaze upon the fortunate few who held admission tickets. If the frenzy took place today it might have been called ‘Lindsanity’, much the way Knick point guard Jeremy Lin’s energetic play inspired the term ‘Linsanity.’

The run for the building as a theater ended in 1855 when it went into service as the countries first immigration center. Approximately 8 million people came into the US through the Battery. (Castle Garden immigration records can be found here.) The land around the castle was filled in during this period, as it gradually became part of the mainland between 1853 and 1872. When the flow of people into the country became too great for it to handle, it was moved to Ellis Island in 1892.

Castle Garden as Theater and Immigration Center

On December 10th 1896 the New York Aquarium opened at Castle Garden.1 It might have been a modest aquarium in size by today’s standards, but for its time it was a very large and popular attraction. It averaged 5,000 attendees a day in 1919 and could boast of having 5,000 different specimen of fish at the time. While it concentrated on North American fresh and salt water fish it also had alligators, turtles, and many varieties of unique specimen.

Aquarium Interior, 1900’s

By the 1930’s it became clear that Manhattan needed a southern connection to the growing highway network being built around the city. A tunnel was proposed at the Battery, but Robert Moses, Triborough Bridge Authority chairman, decided a bridge should be built so it could handle more traffic.2

A bridge meant the aquarium and much of Battery Park would have to go to make space for it. Preservationists  spoke out against the bridge, they argued that besides destroying the park, it would obstruct the cities skyline, diminish its property values, and pollute the area. However in the end Moses overrode them and got the approval of the city council, mayor, and governor, and had the plans for the bridge moved forward.

But at the last second the hand of President Roosevelt swooned in and blocked the bridge. Roosevelt (secretly) asked the war department  to deny it on the grounds that it posed a security risk to the city (which is unlikely). In truth his denial really came because Roosevelt sympathized with the preservationists, and it was his only political play he could use to stop it. As a result Moses was forced to build a tunnel.

Aquarium Exterior, Circa 1940

Moses blamed the Aquarium and its supporters for the decision and lashed out in revenge against them. He closed the aquarium and had the exhibits put into storage. He had the roof, interior, and upper floors ripped away from the structure. He would have destroyed the entire building, but no company was  available at the time to fill the job of taking down the fort walls as war was imminent and they were all busy working on defense contracts.

Castle Clinton during destruction in 1941 (NYC Parks Photo Archive)

Congress was able to declare the castle a national monument in 1946 and took over ownership of the building before Moses could destroy it. The remaining fort structure was restored back into the Castle Clinton monument, (similar to its pre 1820’s configuration) and in 1986 it became the ticket center for the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island. It’s ironic that today we buy tickets in the building that did what Ellis Island did before Ellis Island did it. Luckily we are still able to use what remains of the fort, it’s unfortunate that we lost the beautiful architecture that was once housed within it.

Castle Clinton, Recent Photo

My Prior Entry of Top 20 Place was #10 the 1964 Worlds Fair  here

Sources and Links

National Park Service Castle Clinton Page on Castle Garden

Time July 2011 Article on Aquiarium Demolition 

Jeremia’s Vanishing NY Dec 2010 on the Aquarium

Bill Clinton at Future Diner

Arcadia Publishing Book on Castle Garden and Battery Park

1908 Annual Report of the New York Historical Society on the Aquarium

1I wasn’t able to find much about what led up to the decision to make Castle Garden the first home for the Aquarium. If anyone has anything  on it please post or email me, I would love to know more about how it came to be.
2I try to deal with Moses on a case by case basis. I have my opinion of him, so does most everyone, we can learn most about him by looking at him one event at a time …  that said, the Aquarium history does not shed a good light on Moses.

Thanks again to Robert Caro for his research in the Power Broker for detailing the history of the castle.

Leave a comment

1 Comment

  1. Nancy

     /  November 11, 2013

    Thanks for this great post! I was researching a 1919 diary that mentions the Equarium visited in Manhattan and know I know what she saw!


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