The New York District of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers recently completed $5.2 million in renovations to Warner House ─ an iconic home on a small island in the Hudson River north of New York City with strong ties to the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, a well-known engineering school, and the American Revolutionary War (1775-83).
Constitution Island sits directly across from West Point and is accessible largely by boat (the only land access is a one-lane maintenance road from a commuter rail line.) It’s connected to the eastern shore by Constitution Marsh, providing habitat for more than 200 species of birds and 30 species of fish. Native Americans used the island for hunting, fishing, trade and transportation. Archaeological evidence indicates habitation dating back to 6,000 B.C. when most of the world’s population lived in scattered villages.
New York District Commander Col. Matthew Luzzatto said: “Warner House is an integral part of the Academy at West Point with historical significance. Our [Army Corps of Engineers] work there preserves that history and enhances the island’s academic and recreational use for Cadets, their families and the public.”
The New York District recently completed restoring the 220-year-old home while preserving its historic heritage: Many features were modernized, others restored. For example, the historic clapboard (wooden siding) was removed, salvageable materials restored, and then put back in its original location. In some areas, clapboard was moved left or right and new, historically-accurate clapboard put in its place.
Connections to Past Civilizations
Prior to renovations, excavations confirmed a Native American presence dating back to 6,000-4,000 B.C. Inhabitants may have left behind an artifact known as a banner stone that was recovered from the site – a winged, polished stone piece that would have been mounted on a staff and likely held spiritual and social significance. Excavations also revealed a refuse deposit of marine shell fragments possibly dating back to the Revolutionary War, indicating inhabitants supplemented their diet with clams and oysters harvested at low tide.
Revolutionary War Era
The Continental Congress, believing the Hudson River should be fortified against the British, appointed George Washington in 1775 ─ the first President of the United States ─ to establish defenses in the area. In 1778, the ‘Great Chain’ of forged iron links ─ 500 yards long, supported by huge floating logs ─ was stretched across the Hudson River from West Point to Constitution Island to block British ships sailing up the river. If the British had reached Albany ─ 70 miles to the north ─ they could have split the Colonies in two.
The Great Chain remained in place from 1778-1782, except when ice blocked the river. After the war, Constitution Island returned to civilian use.
Beginnings of a Home
A wood-frame barrack was built on the site in 1782 and occupied until the end of the war in 1783. The U.S. Army intended to dismantle it and sell it for scrap but couldn’t find a buyer. A resident of the island appears to have occupied the barrack and, at some point between 1801-08, reduced it to one wing of the former barrack. This portion likely represents the ‘Colonial section’ of the present-day Warner House.
The Warner family acquired the island in 1836 and inhabited the home until 1915. Two sisters ─ Susan and Anna Warner ─ were well-known 19th-century American writers: Susan wrote The Wide, Wide World in 1850, the first best-selling novel of the nineteenth century, and Anna wrote the words to the hymn "Jesus Loves Me." Between them, they produced 89 books — mainly novels, but also children's books and religious stories.
Their primary creative and social outlets were Bible classes they taught to West Point Cadets for 40 years who traveled to the island in rowboats on Sunday afternoons. The Warner sisters are the only civilian women buried in the West Point Cemetery that is almost exclusively reserved for U.S. Military officials and West Point alumni.
After Susan died in 1885, Anna continued classes until her death in 1915. That year's West Point graduates, known as the ‘class the stars fell on,’ included Dwight D. Eisenhower who would become the 34th President of the U.S. and five-star general of victorious forces in Europe in World War II. In 1908, West Point received Constitution Island as a gift from philanthropist Margaret Sage.
Island as Learning
As early as 1916, the Academy utilized the island for ‘Drill Days’ where Cadets were instructed in various engineering skills. One activity was constructing improvised bridges on the rugged central portion of the island. Today, a regularly scheduled ferry takes Cadets to Constitution Island for geological and environmental outdoor learning and operations exercises. Constitution Island is also used by the Academy to hold special events and a local garden club beautifies the grounds. Plans are afoot for camping activities by the Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts.
Warner House is being restored by the Constitution Island Association, a nonprofit restoring the home’s interior furnishings, preserving it as close as possible to its habited existence in the 18th and 19th centuries.
It is expected to re-open to the public as a museum this fall after furnishings are restored and COVID-19 restrictions lifted. (It also served as a museum prior to renovations.) The U.S. Army Garrison, West Point Directorate of Public Works, maintains the building and grounds. The Association traditionally provides historic and cultural tours for visitors to the island and maintains the extensive gardens surrounding the Warner House.
Last fall, Cadets from the History Club spent an afternoon on Constitution Island helping with ground-keeping around the Warner House and in Anna Warner’s historic garden. The Cadets also cleared branches and small trees from the trails that lead to the numerous Revolutionary Era redoubts that once made up Fortress West Point. (Redoubts are temporary or supplementary fortifications.)
National Historical Landmark
The Academy and grounds were declared a National Historic Landmark in 1960 due to the Revolutionary War history and the age and historic significance of the Academy itself. Warner House is considered a contributing property to this designation as “a structure which adds to the historical integrity or architectural qualities that make the historic district significant.” The majority of the buildings in the central Cadet area are historic. Only three percent of 90,000+ places listed in the U.S. National Register of Historic Places are recognized as National Historic Landmarks.