15 Things You Didn’t Know About Roosevelt Island

Caitlin Horsfield Caitlin Horsfield

15 Things You Didn’t Know About Roosevelt Island
You may be familiar with the small strip of land in the middle of the East River known as Roosevelt’s Island. For years, developers have been putting focus on the island for establishing housing, parks and more recently, Cornell’s new tech campus. Here are a few facts about this little cultural offshoot off the coast of Manhattan that you might find interesting:

First of all, Roosevelt Island is technically part of the borough of Manhattan. Spanning 2 miles and almost 40 city blocks from 46th to 85th street, this small island is often (literally) overshadowed by the Queensboro bridge which passes right above it.

New Yorkers have had a presence on the island since the time of the Dutch Settlers. The island is therefore home to one of the city’s oldest houses, the Blackwell House. The house is technically the 6th oldest in the city, dating back to 1796.

After the English seized the island from the Dutch in 1666, it was renamed first Manning’s Island after the Captain who led the mission, and later Blackwell’s Island after his son in law. The great-grandson of this Blackwell constructed the house as it is seen today.

The house is protected by the National Register of Historic Places and there are plans in place to renovate its interior to make it into a community center.

Obviously, the island has changed a lot throughout the years.  In the 19th century Roosevelt Island, which had by then been renamed Welfare Island because of its role as the keeper of the city’s most ill, was a home to a prison, several hospitals and lunatic asylums. In fact, the last convicts didn’t leave the island until 1935 when Rikers Island opened it’s doors.

Of the hospitals and centers on the island, the most important were the Small Pox Hospital which opened in 1856 and was the first hospital in the country dedicated to curing the disease, and the New York City Lunatic Asylum. Although this island was clearly a macabre site to behold at its time, the architecture sure was charming.

The Octagon, which originally served as the entrance to the lunatic asylum is still standing today. After it was abandoned when the corresponding hospital closed in 1955, a period of decay and two fires left the building in ruin. However it was added to the National Register of Historic Places along with the Blackwell House in 1976 and has since been restored.

Today it forms a part of a high end housing complex, although we’re not sure who would really want to live there after its disturbing and spooky past rife with mistreatment of mental patients.

Moving into the 20th and 21st centuries, Roosevelt Island experienced a serious revamp. In 1969, Welfare Island was leased out from the city to the state through the New York State Urban Corporation Development with a 99 year lease. In 1973, the name was officially changed to the name we now know, Roosevelt Island.

By 1976 the tramway had opened thanks to a federally funded redevelopment plan. This plan also promoted the development of the beautiful Four Freedoms National Park which opened in 2012. The park now sponsors a season of events including free yoga, concerts, book readings, public talks and even kite flying. The season runs from May to October.

Finally, the Cornell Tech campus is the most recent architectural addition to the island. If anything screams “progress” it’s definitely the addition of this modern architecture to the island. The campus, which is set on two acres, also includes a hotel which is set to open in 2019.

Today, Roosevelt Island remains largely car free as it was never intended to support automobile traffic. The renovations to the island and the opening of the Four Freedoms Park has brought on a serious resurgence of the area with gentrification and luxury apartments popping up as well. It’s safe to say that the island has an interesting history and has come a long way from its past as the keeper of vagabonds, criminals and mistreated mentally ill patients.

Featured image: @jerseygirl_nyc via Intagram

Also published on Medium.

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