Site of Revolutionary Fort No. 2 Lost to History

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    • #1416
      ndembowski
      Keymaster

      I wrote about a site on Spuyten Duyvil that was once home to a small fort during the Revolution here with a follow up here.  You can see all of the press about the effort to draw attention to the endangered site here.

      Well, it is no longer endangered.  It is pretty much gone.  Excavators and construction crews have been busily digging away to build the foundations for new buildings and the cement is dry.  The real shame of it is that the owner/developers would not let us onto the property to look for relics of the fort without conceding to some ridiculous demands in a non-disclosure agreement.  The demands were foisted upon us at the last minute after we had already procured a $2,000,000 insurance policy to dig on the site.  The most absurd of the owner/developer’s demands was the insistence that we not photograph anything we found nor could we ever discuss or publicize what we found without the permission of the owner/developers (see the snippet below from the Non Disclosure Agreement).

      Actually, they took it one step further.  Not only would the current generation of local historians be prevented from discussing any findings, our “successors” would also need approval from the owner/developer should they ever wish to discuss any findings:

      The whole point of history/archaeology is to teach and learn about the past–not to keep it a secret.  We could not agree to their NDA.

      In 1906, Reginald Pelham Bolton, who found Revolutionary War artifacts on this very site, wrote in the New York Times about northern Manhattan and Spuyten Duyvil:

      I will venture to assert that every such visitor, young and old, will agree with me that this lovely spot, rich in scenery, in commanding historic interest, and in the priceless actual remains of our aboriginal predecessors, should be, nay, must be preserved from destruction for the education of our young, the delectation of our citizens, and for the advantage of future generations.

      The above photo shows Bolton on the fort site with homes that still exist in the background. He would not be happy with what has transpired.  And if you walk or drive around Spuyten Duyvil today, you will notice that the last empty lots are being built upon.  Older single-family homes are being torn down in favor of apartments. Older apartment buildings have been torn down in favor of bigger apartment buildings.  At this rate, you have to wonder how much more development the neighborhood can take with its paltry public transportation and one public school? And while the city is in need of affordable housing, the houses going up on the fort site will list for well over one million dollars and the new “luxury” apartments will certainly cost more than the ones they replaced.

      It is a shame that whatever was buried on that site was not saved “for the education of our young, the delectation of our citizens, and for the advantage of future generations.”

       

    • #1424
      COGGINSS
      Participant

      Did the Electeds get involved in trying to help you negotiate? How about the Community Board?

      • #1425
        ndembowski
        Keymaster

        No, they did not get involved in any serious way.  I got one or two phone calls from political staffers but no follow through.

    • #1426
      COGGINSS
      Participant

      That is unacceptable.

      Let’s talk.

       

    • #1428
      Peter Ostrander
      Moderator

      The destruction of the fort site is a real loss to our neighborhood, NY City and American history. But sadly won’t be the last. Our local elected representatives were alerted to the issue of the building on the historic  Revolutionary War fort site. While the owners and  builder of the site, Hal Dorfman and Martin Zelnik played dumb  and denied there was even a  fort on the site. I can only assume they felt intimidated by the imposing and powerful Kingsbridge Historical Society as they turned over discussions to their lawyer who came across as ignorant as the owners on the history of the site.  On a phone called their lawyer denied there was even a fort on the site and  said since ‘all of Riverdale is  historic why don’t you just go and dig your holes some other place’. How can you argue with such logic.

       

      To further show  the enlightened and understanding owners we were dealing with they offered that the KHS   could dig ONE(1) test hole 2 by 2 by 2 foot deep, just one!.  As if by some divine  intervention we would be able to pin point the one place on the site that would turn up something of historic interest.   It really makes you wonder.

       

      Councilman Cohen was contacted through his office but the calls were more inquisitive  of why the KHS interest in the site than of interest  in history of the site.  I personally spoke with Assemblyman Dinowitz explaining the significands of the historic fort site. He is a born and raised Bronxite said he appreciated history.  I’m sorry I didn’t ask what history.  I was asked to send  supporting background materials which I emailed to his office, then nothing.

       

      The Fort was built in the summer of 1776, visited by George Washington many times and lastly in 1781 with Rochambeau on the Grand Tour of the area. Fort #2 was also known as Fort Swartwout for the leader of the Dutchess County Militia who built the fort.

       

      It should be restated that we fully understood the monetary and business situation entailed in a building project.  We were upfront in acknowledging that our intent was not to stop their building but only to ask permission to do a site survey and some test holes.  We wanted to especially document the full size and dimension of the fort as originally built before its destruction by the builders. They were going to plow  3 cellars through the site so what damage could we do.  We had engaged the help of archeologist and professors from Fordham University and consulted with NYC Landmark Preservation Commission.  The property being privately owner there was no leverage the LPC nor our elected officials could do to stop the building as of right. But reaching out to Cohen and Dinowitz  to ask if they could talk and reason  with Dorfman and Zelnik. That didn’t happen.  The history of the fort is not only of locally significant but also nationally important.  There are only a few  American Revolutionary Forts available for such study and fully intact. The KHS had done a simple one day site survey back in 1988 with professional archeologist, Fordham University and KHS members. We confirmed  the site with a survery and resistivity tests and the dig planned last May 2019 was to actually do a larger survey and dig for a week.

       

      But this latest setback for historic preservation in Riverdale is nothing new. Our leaders really don’t care about local history or American history.  Basically it doesn’t get them votes or money for elections. And frankly local history is not really appreciated. But they will name a street for someone no one knows.

       

      The KHS has a long history in trying to preserve historical sites but with little success.

      1) Dr. Tieck back in the 1950s tried to stop the ‘Power Broker” Robert Moses from destroying the Berrien-Johnson house on Spuyten Duyvil. It was a pre-Revolutionary 2 story stone house approximately where the little park house is today in Riverdale park playground.   Moses didn’t care about history and preservation and so it went.

      2) Back in 1994/5 the KHS tried to preserve the historic landscape around the Van Cortlandt Mansion from a $1M+ 6 court tennis complex being built next to the VC Mansion. The KHS sued NYC and won the first round with an injunction to stop construction. But lost on appeal which we could not afford to pursue.  If your counting KHS now 0-2.

      3) Next was to try and preserve the early 19th C mansion built on Fort #1 on Schriever Home property. The KHS request was similar to Fort #2.  First we tried to preserve the mansion. When we realized it was to be torn down we asked if  the society and professionals volunteers could do an archeological study and dig for a few days.  This too was denied and the house torn down and a parking lot built upon the site.

       

      4) Three years ago the KHS tried to get a new dog run being planned  on the East side of VC Park in Woodlawn to be relocated slightly south from being built next to a Veterans memorial. A $1M dog run had been funded by Councilman Koppell and planned and sited by Parks Dept.  The KHS asked Councilman Cohen’s, to help  work with Parks Dept to have the dog run moved a few yards away from the Stockbridge Indian war memorial. Councilman Cohen’s reply was that it was his predecessor Koppell’s project and not his.  No thought to the insult to veterans and historical sites he didn’t want to get involved.  KHS 0-3.

       

      5) One recent  success was finally getting some attention to the broken and deteriorated headstones of Dorcas and Samuel Berrien from 1794/6. These headstones were removed from their place in the old Kings Bridge Burial ground in V.C. Park and dumped next to the mansion by NYC Parks Dept.   Yes the same Berrien’s whose stone house on Spuyten Duyvil was torn down by Parks Dept and Robert Moses. They stones are still in disrepair and not sure if they will ever get reinstalled in the burial ground. When fist removed they were in perfect condition.  But the KHS was successful in getting a historic signage erected at the Burial Ground site explaining its history.

       

      The destruction of  Fort #2 ( Fort Swartwout) is a major lost to American History. It didn’t need to be if our laws, our elected officials and Community Board had more interest in our past. With our 3rd world one party domination in NY  political system I don’t have much hope.  When we have one party controlling NYC (49 of 52 councilman democratic),the mayor, the Governor, the state Assembly and Senator all of the same party  we are not much better than a banana republic with its lack of diversity of opinion and discussions. It’s a political herd mentality ruling.

       

      Dr Tieck said it best 25yrs ago when he spoke at the City Landmarks commission to try and stop the tennis counts at VC Park  “  New York doesn’t know what to do with things that are old, including it’s people,  tear down Penn station style , rebuild and regret”.   The same still holds true today.

    • #1430
      ndembowski
      Keymaster

      The part that still does not make sense to me is what the developer and owner were actually afraid of.  Even if we were to find George Washington’s dentures buried on the lot, there is no law or ordinance that would have prevented them from building there.

      I was the one who voluntarily offered to sign a non-disclosure agreement so that any findings would not be revealed until after construction was completed.  You would think that would satisfy the developer and his attorney. But instead they countered with multiple agreements that amounted to a gag order–a lifetime ban on ever discussing what was found without the consent of the developer.  That fact alone shows that they in fact knew the fort was there but wanted to make sure know one else would.

      The fact is we were not treated in a honest and straightforward manner.  The owner, Martin Zelnik, claimed in the Riverdale Press that:

      “If it’s just a question of getting publicity or being able to photograph something for documentation, I don’t have a problem with that,” he said. “It was never raised with me. If they wanted a photograph an arrowhead if they found one, God bless them. I’m all for historic preservation.”

      He added:

      “I thought (the agreement) was fine,” Zelnik said. “But the next thing I know, he’s going to the newspapers making claims that I’m totally unaware of.”

      I found it incredibly dishonest on Mr. Zelnik’s part to say in the press that he is “all for” allowing a dig for “publicity” and that photography would be okay with him.  The documents sent to us by the developer’s attorney expressly forbade the very things he said he was “all for” and he was a designated signatory on the agreement. They sent us agreements saying one thing and then said something totally different in the paper.

      This is the provision on the agreement that stated that we could be prohibited from publicizing the dig and that photography would not be permitted:

      This is Zelnik’s signature line on the Non Disclosure Agreement:

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