I visited the abandoned landscape of Fort Hancock this week, expecting to be inspired with thoughts about coastal defences and how they have changed since Battery Potter was built here in 1890. Instead, I was struck by the resemblance to the ruined walls of Hadrian’s Villa or numberless other ancient structures that have stood the test of time, and are likely to continue in sheer persistence long after their original functions have passed.
The Battery at Fort Hancock understood that the best defence was camouflage, and took great care in disguising the gun emplacements in shape and cover to look like a sand dune. The original battery had two retractable guns; they were raised to shoot (with a range of 8 miles) and lowered to load and service. It took maybe 40 seconds to return them to service… but that was deemed too long, even in 1893 when it was placed in service, and the militia in charge of the New York Harbor Defence immediately went to work designing bigger and better emplacements. It was these modern walls – long, rough, and concrete – that inspired comparison with the entrance wall to Hadrian’s pleasure palace.
What we see in the ruins in Tivoli today is the structure beneath the artifice, the underpinning of brick and tufa and cement once invisible beneath the noble sheets of marble and travertine. Eleanor Clark wrote in Rome and a Villa, “There is anyway something peculiarly mournful about them; they are so sober and tidy, you feel the hand of the workmen in them more than anywhere else, the little individual moment of skill and patience, and probably haste too… spent on something never meant to be seen, and that was never seen again, once the workman was through, until the whole tragedy had been finished for so long the place was anybody’s to go picking around in.”
It was much the same attitude at a military installation. These massive works were not built for beauty, but for work; the serious work of keeping shipping lanes open, no matter what might happen in the future. We were at war with no one in 1890, but the defence industry never rests. Much like emperors, with lands left to conquer.
Why do we enjoy ruins? Is it to experience the visceral impact of history? To imagine horrors in contrast to our colorless lives? They provide a comparison in mass to our own fragile body. They remind us that even an imposing and permanent thing such as a structure has a limited lifespan, and we see it in the deteriorating phase. Their stability, implacability, lends us strength. The corruption of nature, in the form of vines or brush, imparts the wicked frisson of delight. Built to withstand bombs, the walls succumb to nature.
Left alone, all walls lose the battle against time someday. At Fort Hancock, the shifting sands are underway as the dynamic coast moves with littoral drift. The whole fort will be underwater soon – in fifty years? A hundred? What ruins will we leave our grandchildren in their place?