Fort of Solitude

Fort of Solitude

North Park, a new 8-acre section of Fort Totten park designed by Nancy Owens Studio, will open this spring.
Courtesy Nancy Owens Studio

One of the most impressive New York sites you may have never heard of, Fort Totten is a 149-acre peninsula jutting off the coast of Bayside, Queens, with Civil War–era fortifications, meditative grounds, and views of Long Island Sound. But over the last half-century it has had few visitors, being home to a U.S. Army installation and largely barred to the public until 2005, when the first limited access opened to 50 acres acquired by the New York City Parks Department.

Now the next stage of the fort’s public debut is at hand: a new, eight-acre park known as North Park, set to open in the spring. Designed by landscape architecture firm Nancy Owens Studio, which also created a masterplan for the fort, the project came with its share of challenges, not least of which was the setting. “I wanted everything to be the right scale,” said principal Nancy Owens, “but there was a lot of competition with the shore and the military architecture.”

A 149-acre peninsula off Bayside, Queens, Fort Totten is being converted piece-by-piece from a fort into a public park.

Owens responded by recalling the site’s long and layered military history, which includes a fortification known as a water battery that sits along the waterfront. As a gesture to this and another battery buried on the grounds, Owens built a 200-foot-long ridge rising eight feet. Dubbed King Battery Mound, this sculptural landscape will provide visitors with views of Long Island Sound. Meanwhile, planting strategies focus on the site’s natural history, restoring native vegetation with 200 new trees and 10,000 grasses. The subtly structured approach and soft design lines make the park about more than just military geometry.

Since parts of Fort Totten fall under the jurisdiction of different agencies—including the Coast Guard, the U.S. Army, and the New York City Fire Department—implementation of more ambitious designs has been difficult. A proposed pedestrian promenade along the waterfront, for instance, would cross Coast Guard property, but until the Coast Guard grants approval, visitors must walk along a paved road that runs through the middle of the peninsula. Owens addressed the property boundaries in her design, using the King Battery Mound to obscure views of Coast Guard property to the west, and positioning a bioswale as a natural demarcation between the park and the Fire Department’s property.

The battery, a section of North Park that was once home to canons protecting the city from Long Island Sound.
Alexandros zervos

Subsequent phases of construction, which are not currently funded, call for rebuilding the deteriorating sea wall, which would enable public access to parts currently off-limits without a guide, including the water battery and the shoreline. Another proposal would introduce a step-stone wall that would meander through the park and terminate in an expanse of stones that would serve as both an amphitheater and a Native American memorial.

Owens would also like to see electrical wires buried and outdoor lighting installed, design elements not implemented in the first phase of construction, possibly because nearly a third of the project’s $3.8 million budget went to the demolition of 19 abandoned houses on the site. That work, at least, offered a chance to incorporate the foundations into the design. “We tried to keep the house pads as memory zones to retain some of the historical energy,” Owens said.

The North Park is quite a young park in its current condition, and will require the passage of time for the new flora and fauna to settle in, as well as to knit together elements of the park’s complicated past. “We hope that everything looks seamless,” said Owens. “We’re trying to restore history and make it sustainable.”

A version of this article appeared in AN 19_11.18.2009.