Roosevelt Island sits in the East River between Manhattan and Queens, so close to the city, but so easy to overlook.
I visited as part of a series of bike rides exploring New York during the pandemic and found a fascinating history.
The island was purchased from the Carnarsie Indians in 1637 and farmed for 200 years. It was known first as Mannings Island and then Blackwell’s Island.
In 1796, Jacob Blackwell built a farmhouse that still stands, the oldest structure on the island.
In the 1830s, the city, after having acquired the island, built a prison, a hospital and then more prisons and more hospitals.
In 1856 the Smallpox Hospital was constructed, the first in the country dedicated to combating the deadly viral disease. It was built by prison labor using granite quarried from the island.
The hospital treated 7,000 patients a year until it was converted into a nurses dormitory. By the 1950s it was abandoned. The ruins were declared a landmark and marked for preservation in 1975.
It seemed strangely appropriate to stumble across the ruins during the coronavirus epidemic. I took it as an optimistic sign that we’ve faced worse plagues and survived.
We don’t even think about smallpox anymore since it was eradicated in the late 1970s, but it killed hundreds of millions of people before a vaccine was discovered in 1796.
The building was designed by James Renwick Jr., the architect of St. Patrick’s Cathedral and the Smithsonian and boasts some amazing features.
A web site for the ruin describes it this way: “a light-filled tower with recessed arches supported by corbels sat at the central roof line, a smaller cupola was positioned just above the main entry, a large single-story porch crowned with a bay window marked the entrance, and throughout were crenelated parapets, pointed arches, and mullioned windows.”
The ruins appear prominently in a Michael J. Fox movie called For Love or Money. He is working as a concierge in the Pierre Hotel and has a dream of turning the place into a hotel. I enjoyed watching the young Michael J. Fox, but overall it’s not a great film. It got a 37% rating on Rotten Tomatoes.
In the 1920s, the island was was renamed “Welfare Island,” which seems hard to believe.
Who thought that was a good idea? It was re-named Roosevelt Island in 1973.
The re-branding came with a plan to replace or renovate the dilapidated hospitals and prisons with 20,000 apartments, much of it geared toward lower- to mid-income families.
Included in the plan was the creation of a park at the southern end of the island to honor Franklin D. Roosevelt.
The island is now dominated by tall, modern apartment buildings which ring small parks and ball fields. The streets are tidy. It feels a bit like Singapore. There is only one coffee shop on the island and it’s a Starbucks.
The island leaped into the 21th century with the unveiling in 2017 of the new Cornell Tech campus.
It was proposed by former Mayor Mike Bloomberg as a way to attract and retain tech talent in much of the same way that Stamford University has served as an incubator for Silicon Valley.
The buildings are modern and beautiful and named for donors in the tech industry, including Bloomberg and Tata, the giant Indian outsourcing company. As part of the effort a small park was developed that connected the Cornell campus to the park honoring Roosevelt. It’s like a mini version of the Brooklyn Bridge Park, which was also developed by the Bloomberg administration.
There are artificially shaped hills, strategically placed boulders, trees and natural grasses that provide amazing views of Queens and Manhattan. It’s small, but landscaped in a way that makes it intimate and charming.
The official name is the unmemorable Southpoint Park.
There is one structure in the park, Strecker Memorial Laboratory. Built in 1892, it was a laboratory for City Hospital ad the first place in the nation dedicated to pathological and bacteriological research.
The structure was eventually abandoned and fell into disrepair in the 1950s. It was landmarked in 1976 and today the MTA uses the building to house a power conversion substation for subway trains.
Walking south you wander into the FDR memorial.
The park is officially called the Four Freedoms Park, which is taken from FDR’s 1941 State of the Union speech that argues people should enjoy freedom of speech, freedom of worship, freedom from want and freedom from fear.
The park was designed in 1974 by architect Louis Kahn, who was carrying the designs with him when he suffered a heart attack in a restroom at Penn Station.
Kahn himself is a crazy story. He was born Itze-Leib Schmuilowsky in 1901 in what is modern day Estonia. His family moved to Philadelphia when he was five. He helped make money by playing the piano in theaters to accompany silent movies. He rose to teach architecture at Yale.
He was considered among the most famous architects in the world when he died.
In spite of that, or perhaps because of it, the building of the park was then delayed by bureaucracy and lawsuits over how donors would be acknowledged for almost four decades. So it wasn’t unveiled until 2012.
That helps explain how the park both seems to be new and old at the same time. It’s a new park that was built using a 40-year old design, the kind of “monumental” style that has fallen out of favor.
The park is essentially a long corridor of grass lined with trees that ends with a large bust of the president.
It looks cool from a distance but it’s not cozy.
Its hot in the sun. There’s no place to sit. It’s not how anyone would design a public space today.
What is indisputable is that the views are amazing, which may explain why Hillary Clinton used the park for the official launch of her 2016 campaign.
When I was there a young family was visiting and their daughter was running around in the plaza in front of Roosevelt. An older curmudgeon barked at them, saying its a “memorial, not a playground.”