Forty years ago, New York reacted to the loss of old Pennsylvania Station by passing a law to protect city landmarks. In this series, in partnership with Open House New York, New Yorkers with a stake in the physical city will argue the consequences of the law, the merits and drawbacks of the preservation movement, and what the future might bring.
In April 1975, 2,000 new apartments opened on Roosevelt Island -- a tram ride away
from the East Side of Manhattan. And so this April 25 marked the 30th
anniversary of the current Roosevelt Island community.
But while many New Yorkers think of Roosevelt Island as a new community, for much of the 19th and early 20th century it played an important role in the life of the city. Much of this history was lost in the 1960s and 1970s, when the city was only beginning to recognize the value of preserving its history â€“ and its old buildings. As attitudes and policies changed â€“ with, for example, the enactment of the Landmarks Law that created the city Landmarks Preservation Commission â€“ a handful of buildings were saved. Now, with the real estate market putting new pressures on the
island, it is more vital than ever to preserve the history of this
147-acre piece of land in the East River.
For decades, Roosevelt Island, Blackwells Island, or Welfare Island -- whichever
name you want to use -- was home to a penitentiary, workhouse, lunatic asylum, Metropolitan Hospital, City Hospital, and various almshouses. Goldwater Hospital, for victims of
polio and other chronic diseases opened in 1939.
And so Roosevelt Island was key to
our corrections history, our medical history, our social service
history. It is the history of how people were treated and of what people
Over the years, much of this has been forgotten because, as someone once
said to me, these were not the golden years. The institutions on
Roosevelt Island were not the kinds of places you glow about, but they
did provide desperately needed services. In the 1940s, 10,000 people
lived on the island, mostly in institutions. We should not forget them.
Designed by James Renwick, the lighthouse at the
northern tip of Roosevelt Island helped ships navigate
their way through treacherous waters.
Roosevelt Island is also part of our architectural history. The
works of Frederick Clark Withers, James Renwick, and Alexander Jackson
Davis -- three very
prominent architects -- are still visible on the island.
If the island had been developed 10 or 20 years later, the builders
probably would have saved more of the structures. But in the 1960s and
1970s, many beautiful buildings were just bulldozed. The development
corporation had the attitude, "when in doubt, throw it out." Their
theory was that it is cheaper to build new.
And so we lost the city hospital, a large Versailles-looking building at
the southern end of the island. The administration tore it down, in the
early 1990s, but it could have been restored into a beautiful
The Central Nurses Residence, a massive yellow brick dormitory built for
nursing students and staff in the 1930s, was a perfectly good building
that could have been converted to a different use, but the island
administration decided to abandon it, because it interfered with
vehicular traffic flow. And some beautiful houses at the northern end of
the island could have been rebuilt.
Our landmarks are technically owned by the state of New York, meaning
the city has little control over them. The other dilemma is that the
government exempts themselves from any penalties and protection of
abandoned landmarks. Thus, the Smallpox Hospital, a government
building, has never been rescued by a municipal agency.
We are lucky that the developers saved at least the six historic
buildings we have today. Without our 40 years of landmark legislation,
these structures would almost certainly have vanished as well, But today
all are on the National Register of Historic Places and on the state register and are designated
New York City landmarks.
If you start from the southern tip of the island, you see the smallpox
hospital designed by
James Renwick in the 1860s. Back in the 19th century, this was about the
only hospital where rich people went. Usually, poor people went to
hospitals and died, while rich people were treated at home. But because
smallpox was so communicable, even rich people who contracted it had to
go to the hospital.
The Octagon once served as the entrance to the
country's first municipal lunatic asylum but will soon
link two wings of an apartment building.
The building later became Riverside Hospital and then a school of
nursing -- the third one in the United States -- until it was abandoned
in the 1950s. For more than 20 years, the site remained closed to the
But some New Yorkers remembered the building, perhaps noticing it lit up
at night when they drove along the FDR Drive. And so in 2003, when Open
House New York featured it
as one of its sites to visit, 400 people came on a single day to this
landmark at the island's southern tip. In 2004m more than 700 people
again visited the site in two days of Open House New York.
They saw a building in terrible condition. In winter, as water freezes
and melts, cornice stones fall from the facade. But the building's
grandeur shows through the flaws.
Imaging and computer work indicates that the hospital would need
millions of dollars in repairs to stabilize it. No one has come up with
an economically feasible plan to restore the building. Most likely, it
will become a kind of stabilized ruin.
A kinder fate has befallen Strecker Memorial Laboratory, a charming Withers and
Dickson Romanesque structure. Built in the 1890s, this medical research
facility sat fallow for almost 50 years. Then the Metropolitan
Transportation Authority decided to use the building for a power
conversion substation for the train lines that run beneath the island.
electricity station. The agency restored the building's exterior and
installed equipment inside. It opened five years ago and remains in
beautiful condition, an example of how creative thinking can save an old
As you go up Main Street, you see Blackwell House, a gray wooden
farmhouse built in 1796 by the Blackwell family when they owned the
island. In the 1970s, when the island was developed, architect Giorgio
Cavaglieri completely restored the building. Unfortunately, the people
who ran the island in the 1990s leased Blackwell House to tenants who
did not take care of it. Now, we are in the final steps of obtaining the
long promised state funds to do repairs and hope to reopen the house as
a community building and preserve this building for the future.
The next landmark is the Chapel of the Good Shepherd, an 1889 brick and
brownstone chapel designed by Frederick Clarke Withers, who also
designed Jefferson Market Courthouse. Originally, the chapel served the
residents of the city home or almshouse, which at one time, was home to
between 2,000 and 3,000 poor and homeless people. Restored, also by
Cavaglieri, in 1975, the church is used by both the Episcopal Church and
the Catholic Church. It is also our largest community meeting space.
The Octagon offers a more complicated story.
Built in the 1840s, it served as the first municipal lunatic asylum in the country until 1895 when it
became Metropolitan Hospital. As a young writer, in 1843, Charles
Dickens visited the asylum and wrote about the listless, mad people
cowering in the hallways. As a reporter for Joseph Pulitzer's New York
World, Nellie Bly, whose real name was Elizabeth Cochrane, had herself
committed to the asylum for 10 days in 1887. She then wrote a scathing
expose on the horrible conditions, which did succeed in improving it a
During this period, the Octagon functioned as the entrance to the
asylum, with two wings coming off of it, creating an L-shaped building.
Now the wings are gone, but the octagonal entrance is being completely
restored. Two fairly modern-looking new wings will hold about 500
apartments. They have already added four
floors adjacent to the Octagon -- the landmark Octagon. And some people
do not see the merit of saving any of it. Recently, I was at the Octagon
building and the construction site manager said to me, "Why didn't they
just tear that down a few years ago?"
The Metropolitan Transportation Authority saved
Strecker Memorial Laboratory when it renovated the
1890s building for as a power conversion substation.
Putting modern wings on a landmark building is not an ideal solution.
But at least a small piece of the original building, including a
recreation of the beautiful interior staircase in the dome, remains. The
exterior will be an exact copy of the original, since it is a landmark
And in some sense, visiting the Octagon to get a sense of its history
resembles going to Rome. When you go to the Coliseum, you don't see
lions or people being slaughtered. You have to use your imagination.
Sometimes, small fragments make people think about what was in a place
and what went on there.
And last but not least we have the lighthouse, also designed by
Renwick, which has been repaired and restored. Only 53 feet tall, it was
built in 1876 to light the way at the tip of the island because the
river's swirling currents are very treacherous.
While we celebrate these buildings, challenges remain. Raising money for
the projects is always a problem. And today's real estate market could
also affect the island, home now to some 10,000 people. About 1,200
people will move into the new wings of the Octagon. The Southtown
development is supposed to include nine
buildings. Plans to put affordable housing there now are in doubt. The
landlords would like to see resident of 2,000 original affordable
apartments lose their subsidy and rent the building at market rates. It
has become a gold rush.
If you come to the island on a summer late afternoon or evening, parents
and kids are sitting in the park outside the chapel. We have beautiful
little cul-de-sacs and little grassy areas. They are empty because
people like to be in public spaces. They like to be on the street.
Developers and urban planners often do not seem to understand that. And
people like our old buildings. They like to sit outside of Blackwell
House and the little park next to it. The lighthouse park also is very
popular. These landmark structures are somehow more comfortable than the
concrete of our 1970s design.
I love Roosevelt Island. It's a small town, people caring about each
other, people knowing each other, sitting around and schmoozing. It's
almost like the old days. And our six historic buildings contribute to
that feeling. They tell us about our past and they add character.
Judith Berdy is president and historian of the Roosevelt Island
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