Roosevelt Island in New York, P.1 | CruiseBe
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Roosevelt Island in New York, P.1

Gian Luka • 8 minutes read • July 3rd, 2017
Roosevelt Island, New York
Dear friends, in this article I want to acquaint you with Roosevelt Island, which is located between Manhattan and Queens. This is a quite small island of about 300 meters wide and about 3 kilometers long, connected to the land by the Queensboro Bridge and a cable car. This is a very interesting place, not similar to Manhattan or other parts of New York.
Panoramio | Ray Gasnick II

As usual, let me make a short historical excursus.
It is known that the island was the property of the Canary tribes and then it was known as Hog Island until 1637, when it was bought back by the Danish governor Wouter Van Twiller. In 1666, the island was captured by an Englishman - Captain John Manning, who named the island in his honor.
In the 1680-90's, his son-in-law, Robert Blackwell, became the owner of the island and renamed it in his honor - Blackwell Island.
In 1796, Robert Blackwell's great-grandson, Jacob Blackwell, built the famous Blackwell House on the island. Nowadays, this is the oldest surviving building on the island and one of the few houses in New York that exemplify the architecture of the 18th century.

After this, a gradual building of the island had started, and in 1828 the island was redeemed by the authorities of New York for USD 32,000 (about USD 700,000 by our standards, that was really cheap for such a huge piece of land in the center of New York, a truly ingenious deal).
However, the city's plans for the island were not entirely rosy. In 1832, a prison was opened on the island and a hospital for the prisoners was built.

In 1839-41, New York City Lunatic Asylum (psychiatric hospital) was constructed on the island. The Octagon tower that survived to our days, was a part of the hospital.
Octagon was the entrance to the psychiatric hospital. After the hospital was closed, it was abandoned for a long time.

And now, there’s residential estate on this place, and Octagon is one of the entrances to it. I suppose this place has a good aura.

The history of the psychiatric hospital deserves a separate study. Let me note that only one wing of the clinic’s building was built completely. Immediately after the opening, the hospital was mired in loud scandals, the conditions of detention were horrible, the keepers were cruel, and healthy or physically ill people were “easily” confined to the hospital. There was a scandal when a reporter Nellie Bly (an investigation commissioned by Pulitzer) got into the hospital for 10 days and it was she who exposed the cruel treatment of doctors with patients, inhuman conditions of detention, and afterward published a book Ten Days in a Mad-House (1887). This scandal helped to review the financing of such hospitals.

But let us get back to the history of the island.
In 1852, the so-called workhouse for small offenders was built on the island.

And in 1856, the Smallpox Hospital was opened.
In 1858, a psychiatric clinic and a hospital for convicts were destroyed by fire. The psychiatric hospital was restored in the same place, and in 1861 a city hospital was built in the place of the prison hospital, which was soon renamed Charity Hospital.
This is a renovated psychiatric hospital.
This is Charity Hospital.

Julius Wilcox / Brooklyn Collection at Brooklyn Public Library

In 1872, a 15-meter lighthouse in the Gothic style was built on the island.

Here’s the lighthouse at the present day:

In 1889, the Chapel of the Good Shepherd was built on the island.
It looked quite abandoned in the middle of the 20th century.
Photo source: Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, HABS.

It looks better nowadays.

In 1894, the psychiatric hospital was re-qualified (virtually ceased to exist) and it was renamed Metropolitan Hospital. In 1895, a part of the mentally ill inmates was transferred to Ward's Island.

The beginning of the 20th century changed the face of the island.

In 1909, the Queensboro Bridge was opened, in the same year the island connected with Manhattan and Queens with a cable car that was running over the bridge and stopping in the center of the island to disembark passengers.

In 1921, the island changed its name again and became known as Welfare Island (it got this name until 1973 when the island was named Roosevelt Island in honor of 32 US President). The prison on the island was closed in 1935.
In 1939, another hospital for more than 1,000 beds (Goldwater Memorial Hospital) was opened, and in 1952, a new hospital was opened on the island (Coler Hospital). In 1996, these hospitals were merged into one, and in 2013 it virtually ceased to exist in the form it was at that time. There will be Cornell NYC Tech campus (university campus), on the site of Goldwater Memorial Hospital. The northern part (the historic Kohler Hospital) isn’t planned to be closed yet.
In 1955, considering the emergence of two new clinics, Metropolitan Hospital moved from the island, leaving the former psychiatric building abandoned. In the same year another bridge was opened from Queens, and in the same year the cable car over the Queensboro Bridge was closed (it was dismantled in 1970).

In 1957, the Smallpox Hospital and Charity Hospital were closed and moved to new buildings in Queens, and the buildings on the island remained in desolation.
This is Charity Hospital in 1989.

Here’s a view of the island, the Queensboro Bridge and Manhattan, 1978.
Photo from the site:

The Smallpox Hospital, which commonly was called "The Renwick Ruins", became a local landmark. The hospital was abandoned for a long time. In 2007, the Northern part of the Smallpox Hospital ruined and USD 4.5 million was allocated to support the building.
In 2009, the ruins were open to visitors. There’s a park and a lighthouse nearby. However, I cannot realize the further destiny of this building…

In 1969, the plan for the general residential development of the island was approved. The road traffic was prohibited in some areas of the island.

In 1976, a new cable connection with Manhattan was set (reconstructed in 2010).
In 1989 a subway station was opened.
In the 21st century, old objects began to be reconstructed (it affected the Octagon, the lighthouse, the cable car). There’s an excellent park to the south of the island. Despite the closure of the hospital in 2013, the island has a medical school. Residential buildings are still being constructed.
Picture: FDR Four Freedoms Park LLC, Steve Amiaga/Paul Warchol/AP

As you can see, the island has a very difficult destiny. For almost 100 years, this was the realm of prisoners, madmen, and sick persons. It's hard for me to judge what kind of vibrations this place has, what secrets the old ruins and the land of this island keep and what will happen to it in the future. For more than 400 years, the island changed its name several times and its fate in addition to that. It is interesting to know what will happen next.
In the next part of this article, you can find some photos I took during my walk.
Author: Gian Luka
Translated by: Zoozi

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