Five Top Chefs, Just Forty Guests, and One Remarkable Setting
Photo by Jane Feldman
To raise funds and heighten public awareness of their mission, the Bannerman Castle Trust is hosting a dinner on Pollepel Island in Fishkill on September 11. Five prominent chefs—Noah Sheetz, of the Governor’s Mansion in Albany; Laura Pensiero of GiGi Market and Trattoria, in Rhinebeck; Bob Turner, who teaches cooking workshops at the Omega Institute in Rhinebeck; Jeff Loshinsky, a Hudson-based caterer and personal chef; and Liz Beals, “Chief Jammer” at Beth’s Farm Kitchen in Stuyvesant Falls— have volunteered to produce the dinner from food local farmers and other specialty purveyors in the region will donate. Guests will arrive by boat, then will get a guided tour of the island, after which, everyone will sit down at tables set amongst the remains of Helen Bannerman’s gardens and tuck into what promises to be an amazing five-course meal.
Wonderful as the food will no doubt be, it is the 6.5 acre island itself and, even more to the point, the crumbling structures on it—which most of us have barely glimpsed from a speeding train—that is the real draw. From a seat on the river side of the railway car, suddenly, there it is, out in the river—an uninhabited island with several incongruous castle-like structures rising out of the weeds.
In fact, what we pass on the train is what’s left of Bannerman Castle. Originally, there were seven separate structures spread over the 6.5 acres of what is officially still called Pollepel Island. The most ambitious of these buildings is the enormous arsenal, which was built in the first years of the last century by Francis Bannerman, lV, a Scottish emigre who became a successful Manhattan-based war relics dealer.
In 1900, at the insistence of the NYC authorities, Bannerman had to get his munitions out of town. What safer venue, he reasoned, than an island in the Hudson River? Over the ensuing years, Bannerman, an enthusiastic amateur architect, added six more structures to the island, including a “powder house” that one day in 1920 disappeared without a trace in what, by all accounts, was a spectacular explosion. Oddly, considering his propensity for grandiosity, the summer house Bannerman built for himself and his family, while also castle-like in style, was only 1100 square feet. Modest proportions aside, Bannerman boasted in his company’s catalogues and advertisements that the 3-bedroom “castle” had “every modern convenience.”
“According to his granddaughter-in-law, Jane Campbell Bannerman, who is now 100 years old, ‘Modern conveniences, my foot!’,” says Neil Caplan, a Dutchess County real estate broker (whose aptly named agency is Castle Keep Realty) and innkeeper. Since 1993, Caplan (in the green shirt in the photo above, surrounded by the chefs) has valiantly fought to keep Bannerman Castle and the other structures on the island, which is now part of Hudson Highlands State Park, from collapsing into a pile of rubble and dust. Thanks to donations and matching funds from a New York State Environmental Protection Fund challenge grant, a project is presently underway to stabilize the former Bannerman summer home by restoring its roof, interior floors and walls. Ultimately, if Caplan’s dream of seeing Bannerman Island turned into a proper tourist destnation is ever realized, the house will become the visitors’ center. Meanwhile, for every crenelation Caplan and his cohorts manage to save, two seem to expire. Last winter, two entire walls of the arsenal tower collapsed.
Caplan has all sorts of fundraising schemes planned, many revolving around kayaks, but the future of this incongruous and delightful folly probably rests with finding the right donor, someone who, like Caplan, sees the value in preserving a thing, not because it is of any real historic value, but simply because it is so much fun.
Tickets/$125; seating limited to 40 guests.
Top photo: John Peterson, wearer of many toques, including front-of-the-house-captain for all Jeff Loshinsky-catered events; Noah Sheetz, Neil Caplan, Rebecca Joyner, director of dining services for the Darrow School in New Lebanon; Jeff Loshinsky, and Nicci Cagan, who lights fires or puts them out, as needed.
Photographs of tower ruins by Wes Gottlock