A chameleon of function, Castle Clinton had many reincarnations, and it’s not finished changing yet. Built as a fortification, the masonry circular structure has functioned as an exhibition hall, theater, immigration station, public aquarium, and national monument.
1811-1822 Military Fort
Along with other forts on Bedloe (Liberty) Island, Ellis Island, and Governor’s Island built to defend New York City from the British in the War of 1812, the Southwest Battery never saw any action in that or any other war. It was renamed Castle Clinton in honor of Mayor DeWitt Clinton and for a while served as the US Military headquarters.
1824-1854 Performance Space
In 1824 the life of the fort became much more fun! It was leased by the City of New York as a place of public entertainment and renamed Castle Garden. The site turned into a concert venue, ballroom, lecture space, and beer hall. Soon after its opening, the highly revered Marquis de Lafayette, who was instrumental in the American victory in the Revolutionary War, started his triumphal tour of America. Castle Garden hosted many Presidential visits and held such high-profile events as F.B. Morse’s telegraph demonstration. It was also a place where the darling of the opera world, diva, known as the Swedish nightingale, Jenny Lind, had her American debut with thousands of adoring fans in attendance. Designed as an open-air structure, Castle Garden was roofed over to accommodate these uses.
1855-1890 Immigration Depot
This is a very special chapter in the life of Castle Garden. It was leased by the State of New York to serve as the first immigrant landing depot in the United States. The political situation in Europe in the 1840s and the famine in Ireland brought the flood of immigrants to New York. Castle Garden was designated as the first-ever immigration facility and welcomed more than 8 million people from 1855 to 1890 (until the Federal government assumed responsibility for immigration control and moved to Ellis Island.) Due to the chaotic nature of the poorly organized immigration procedure, Yiddish-speaking Eastern European Jews called it Kesselgarden, the word that came to mean any situation that was noisy and confusing. Some of the notables that entered the country through Castle Clinton were Emma Goldman – a writer, political activist, and an anarchist; Oscar Hammerstein I – prominent theater impresario and composer; Harry Houdini – legendary escape artist, illusionist, and stunt performer; Joseph Pulitzer – a journalist, newspaper publisher and a creator of the Pulitzer Prize; and Nikola Tesla – an inventor whose discoveries defined the modern world.
As immigration processing moved over to Ellis Island, Castle Garden started its new life as the New York City Aquarium. It became one of the most popular attractions, with thousands of visitors a day coming to see exotic aquatic creatures from all over the world. The Aquarium was closed in 1941 to make way for a new Brooklyn-Battery subway tunnel.
1946-2021 National Monument
Administered by the National Park Service, it served as a departure point for visitors to the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island. Once again called Castle Clinton, it hosted a museum of NYC history.
It seems like its function as a ticket service for the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island is no longer needed as most people buy their tickets online. The museum is currently closed, and Castle Clinton awaits its next reincarnation.