The design and layout of Governors Island National Historic District owes much of its development to changing times and roles. From early Dutch settlement to its incarnations as a military base to the US Army and the Coast Guard, Governors Island has evolved over the past three hundred years.
In many ways, however, the Island's appearance is due to the vision of the architectural firm of McKim, Mead & White, for its significant layout and the design of many of its most distinctive institutional buildings.
McKim, Mead & White were at the top of their field at the turn of the 19th century. The firm's work included the original New York Penn Station in 1905, the Boston Public Library in 1887, and the Columbia University Plan in 1893. The firm won widespread acclaim for their design of the Chicago World's Fair in 1893, an internationally attended spectacle highlighting classical architecture.
At the beginning of the 20th century, Secretary of War Elihu Root, a New York lawyer and acquaintance of several of the firm's principals, commissioned McKim, Mead & White to design new campuses for several Army posts across the country, including Governors Island. Their original design for the Island, based on Beaux Arts principles, proposed an entire new campus on the recently created south island and retained only Castle Williams, Fort Jay, and the South Battery in the north.
However, War Department interest in the new expansion waned, funding dried up and principals of the firm all passed away. By the time a final plan was adopted in 1928, much of the original scheme was abandoned.
Nevertheless, the influence of McKim, Mead & White is evident, particularly in the construction of Building 400 (Liggett Hall). The structure was the first permanent building built on the Island's landfill and defines the southern boundary of the historic district. In addition, the balance of the large brick buildings in the historic district was inspired by the original Beaux Arts plan.