Behind the Island Curtain

Behind the Island Curtain

Despite its proximity to Manhattan and Queens, Roosevelt Island has always been something of a mystery and a world unto itself. Home to a prison, an asylum, a hospital, and assorted housing plans, it is now the site of an ambitious new tech campus underway and a major new memorial park set to open this fall. Angela Riechers looks at the history and AN’s editors report on the evolving aspirations for this fast-evolving city sliver.

To a greater degree than any of the other islands dotting the waterways around Manhattan, Roosevelt Island represents a place whose history divides neatly into eras that mirror the social and economic growth of New York City. Over the years, this bit of land just two miles long and 600 yards wide has served as a proving ground to test civic-minded and architectural ideas proposed in a spirit of experimentation. A quirky scrap of the city, Roosevelt Island boasts such amenities as an underground pneumatic tube system for transporting garbage and the first commissioned aerial tramway in the United States. In the 19th century, the island was home to an insane asylum, an almshouse, a prison, a charity hospital, and a smallpox hospital—warehouses for the human unwanted, kept safely segregated from the rest of the population by the treacherous currents of the East River. By the 1970s, as New York slid toward bankruptcy, city planners were looking for new uses for Roosevelt Island, including a proposal to turn it into a massive amusement park.


Today, the insane asylum has been converted to luxury rental residences, the smallpox hospital lies in picturesque gothic ruins, the prisoners now reside on Riker’s Island, the amusement park never happened, and Roosevelt Island is poised to enter a new phase of development that embraces it as a vital component of 21st-century New York City. A compelling feature of its pending renaissance will be Cornell University’s 2-million-square-foot applied science and engineering campus, scheduled for completion by 2037. Skidmore, Owings & Merrill (SOM) is developing a master plan for the parcel of land where Goldwater Hospital now stands, to prepare the site for university buildings to be designed by individual architects. The campus will incorporate a multistory pedestrian network, extensive public gardens and amphitheaters, and a 150,000-square-foot photovoltaic array powering one of the country’s largest net-zero energy structures. Thom Mayne of the architectural firm Morphosis was recently selected to design and build the first of three academic buildings on the site.

Roosevelt Island has known many names and identities throughout recorded history—it was called Minnahanonck or “It’s Nice To Be Here” by the Native Americans, Varcken Eylandt by the 17th-century Dutch, then Hog’s, Blackwell’s, Welfare, and finally Roosevelt Island, after FDR. The city bought the land in 1828 from Robert Blackwell, whose family’s farmhouse still stands just north of the Queensboro Bridge. Soon 107 acres of farmland were developed and put to correctional and humanitarian institutional use, immediately establishing an identity for the island as a place for the unwell, the insane, the destitute, and the criminal.

The penitentiary, a forbidding gray arcaded structure with castle-like crenellations, was completed in 1832, and boasted a staff of 24, including a quarry master and a coxswain to pilot the island’s boat. The lunatic asylum, designed by Alexander Jackson Davis, went up next in 1839, followed by the Hospital for Incurables—those suffering from smallpox or tuberculosis—designed by James Renwick Jr. (designer of the Smithsonian Institution and the original facade of the New York Stock Exchange) and completed in 1857. The island also supported an almshouse for indigent adults and orphaned children. Living conditions were grim for residents at all of these massive stone structures. Social reformer Jacob Riis described the almshouse at Blackwell’s as “the hell-box, rather than the repair-shop, of the city.” Nearly all of the City’s orphans were entrusted to the care of the poor women living in the almshouse, even though ledger books show that most children sent there soon died from diarrhea or malnutrition. One doctor wrote of an infant “regarded as a prodigy because it has managed to attain the age of two months.”

Reflecting its status as the location where the city took care of its poorest citizens, Blackwell’s became known as Welfare Island in 1921. It kept that name until 1973 when the city’s newly created Urban Development Corporation (UDC) rechristened it Roosevelt Island, envisioning a new residential haven for the middle class.  The UDC even came up with a catchy name for the rebranded island: the “New Town in Town.” Architect Rem Koolhaas projected his provocative urban fantasies here—including an elevated “travelator” to move pedestrians around and a park with a so-called Chinese swimming pool carved out of the island’s rock and extending into the river. In his words, Roosevelt Island could become “a civilized escape zone, a kind of resort that offers, from a safe distance, the spectacle of Manhattan burning.”

The comprehensive master plan that the city approved, drafted by Philip Johnson and John Burgee, called for a car-free island where vehicles could only enter from the Queens side. Residences and stores would be connected by a central Main Street running past restored historic buildings and leading to parks at each end of the island. The streets were to flow north from the subway stop, and a bus system would link the main Motorgate parking garage to the north with the tramway and subway to the south.

The first phase of development, known as Northtown, consisted of four housing complexes, including two designed by noted architect Josep Lluís Sert, then dean of the Harvard Graduate School of Design. Sert took an innovative approach to high-rise multiple-dwelling residential buildings, creating duplex units with public corridors and elevators only on every third floor. When the city’s worsening fiscal crisis forced a near-collapse of the UDC in 1975, only 2,138 units of rental housing were built—less than half of the original proposal. Since then, residential construction has been architecturally mixed: buildings in the Starrett Corporation’s Northtown Phase II, completed in 1989, are designed in an undistinguished pseudo-historical postmodern style, and in 2006 the blue stone Octagon tower (the only piece of the old lunatic asylum still standing) was converted into an imposing entrance rotunda for a 500-unit luxury rental complex.

Roosevelt Island’s day-to-day operations are administered by the Roosevelt Island Operating Corporation (RIOC) rather than falling under New York City jurisdiction. RIOC, established in 1984, oversees everything on the island from transit to trash pickup to security and parks, and historically has been controlled by the New York State governor, who approves its board members and appoints its president. Over the years, relations between locals and RIOC have sometimes been contentious, with accusations that too many board members tend to be hand-picked Albany favorites—amounting to governance by a group of outsiders and unqualified political cronies. In the 1990s, residents even staged what they called a Roosevelt Island Tea Party, dumping tea into the East River to protest Governor George E. Pataki’s management, including the appointment of one of ex-Senator Alfonse M. D’Amato’s staff members as president of the RIOC board. The State of New York’s 99-year lease on the island expires in 2068, and control will revert once again to New York City.

New parks abound in Roosevelt Island’s future. The old Renwick smallpox hospital (New York City’s only landmarked ruins) became the centerpiece for the 7.5-acre Southpoint Park, designed by WRT, which opened in the summer 2011. Just beyond the reimagined ruins, stretching to the southernmost tip of the island, will be the 14-acre Franklin Delano Roosevelt Four Freedoms Park by architect Louis Kahn (who was working on construction drawings at the time of his death in 1974). Set to open in 2012, its focal point will be a “granite room,” an open-air plaza with twelve-foot-high walls made from 36-ton blocks of granite, set just one inch apart. Visitors will be able to access the history of the FDR years on their smart phones, technology unimaginable when New York City Mayor John Lindsay first announced the project nearly 40 years ago.

As city planners tried again and again to figure out best uses for this strip of land so close to Manhattan yet so far removed from its everyday hustle and push, Roosevelt Island became densely layered with projects reflecting the social ideals of each subsequent era. Today, Roosevelt Island has been recast as a gleaming modern hub for tech and research, trimmed with new parks and green spaces. Colin Koop, architect and senior designer at SOM, said, “At one time, Roosevelt Island was about prison, then it was about the health and welfare of the underprivileged, then it became about the middle class, and you could argue that now it’s about engagement in tech and education.” In a sense, the island is once again providing a solution to an issue facing the entire city: how to stay competitive in an increasingly tech-based economy. Perhaps the best part of the story is that the new plans still honor Roosevelt Island’s singular history as a place where New York City isn’t afraid to try things out.


Writer and designer Angela Riechers is the creator of Sites of Memory, an online urban history platform.

Four Freedoms Park 

At the tip of Roosevelt Island known as Southpoint, the Franklin D. Roosevelt Four Freedoms Park is set to open in mid-October. The much-anticipated park was designed by Louis Kahn before his 1974 death but is just being completed this year. The only Kahn structure realized to date in New York City, it sits atop a former landfill just south of the remains of a smallpox hospital nicknamed the “Renwick Ruin.” But the four-acre site’s rather insalubrious history is now eclipsed by stately allées of linden trees that flank a grass lawn and lead to Kahn’s austere white “room,” a memorial to President Roosevelt and what is now known as his Four Freedoms speech, part of his State of the Union address in January 1941, the year the United States entered the World War II.


Kahn did not have to compete to win the park project but was handpicked in 1972 by the New York State Urban Development Corporation; this followed a federal commission’s recommendation that a memorial to President Roosevelt be located on what was then known as Welfare Island. “Whatever is done, must be done to outlast everything else on the island,” architect James Polshek said of the proposed memorial in The New York Times in 1973, the year the island was renamed. “This memorial must look permanent and beautiful.”

But just as Kahn’s design was completed, New York City sunk into a financial crisis. Gina Pollara, the executive director of Four Freedoms Park, explained that Roosevelt Island’s unusual status contributed to the delay in getting built. “It’s jurisdictional purgatory,” she said. “The island is owned by the city, but was leased to New York State’s Urban Development Corporation in 1969 in a 99-year lease.” Four Freedoms, technically a New York State park, languished until gaining new momentum in the late 1980s under the Cuomo administration only then to be stymied by Governor Pataki, who cut funding for the island’s capital projects. The park began moving forward again in 2005 thanks to an $11 million grant from the Chicago-based Alphawood Foundation, and this April the project received $500,000 of federal funding for the completion of the landscaping. Pollara said that the Park will likely fund future maintenance through a conservancy. The bevy of new trees, including the 120 lindens and five copper beech trees that mark the park’s entrance, come courtesy of MillionTreesNYC.

The beeches give way to a grand staircase of poured concrete risers that lead to the lawn. At its end stands a granite wall containing a monumental bronze bust of Roosevelt created in 1933 by sculptor Jo Davidson. On the opposite side facing the room, Roosevelt’s famous speech is inscribed, calling for freedom of speech and worship and freedom from want and fear worldwide. Fittingly, the memorial offers an unparalleled view of the United Nations building.

Molly Heintz


Island Infrastructure

The last major assessment of the Roosevelt Island’s infrastructure was carried out in 2009 by Hunter College. “The issue now is that the planned growth is unprecedented and no one has taken a critical look at the infrastructure and the impacts on the residents,” wrote Dr. Laxmi Ramasubramanian, leader of that study, in an email. A spokesperson from NYCEDC said that the agency is in the process of conducting an Environmental Impact Statement for the planned new developments, which will address all environmental issues, including the need for a ConEd makeover to bring gas lines to the island.

Traffic congestion is a primary concern. Yvonne Pryzybyla, ROIC’s transportation planner, said that as Main Street is the only street, one stopped car impacts the entire transportation network. Short-term street parking and long-term garage parking will be needed. The island’s sidewalks are already too narrow for rush hour and the breathtaking views of Manhattan are hobbled by an incomplete promenade. A pedestrian bridge to Manhattan hasn’t been ruled out, but cost and concerns about shipping on the East River could become stumbling blocks. The Hunter report suggested cantilevering a walkway from the Queensborough Bridge. RIOC officials are also hoping for increased ferry service, but without subsidies the fare would keep islanders on the tram and subway, where overcrowded F trains sometimes skip the island to unload passengers in Queens. In one bright note, the tram was renovated in 2010 for $25 million, allowing the two cars to operate independently of each other.

Tom Stoelker

CornellNYC Tech

Nothing says investment potential as readily as a vast tech campus with entrepreneurial ambitions. Turning Roosevelt Island into Silicon Island is meant to be the capstone to the already legacy-laden Bloomberg administration. That means going fast-track at a breakneck speed: from last December, when Cornell-Technion won development rights for the 2-million-square-foot development to starting demolition of the Goldwater Hospital now on the site by January 2014 and completing the first of four Phase I buildings by 2017.  According to Andrew Winters, formerly in the mayor’s Office of Capital Project Development and now leading the development of the new tech campus, the SOM master plan that won the competition “is meant to elicit the principles we will try to follow” including an attention to sustainability, establishing a pedestrian network across campus, and river-to-river connectivity. Beyond that, architects, including Thom Mayne of Morphosis, who is in the midst of designing the first building, are free to invent. This summer architects should be hearing from developers as they team up for the three remaining Phase I buildings for “corporate co-location” research, housing, and a hotel. The Mayne building is on the Manhattan side and is currently in pre-schematic design to be presented to the public later this year.

Julie V. Iovine


Island Housing

Half built and awaiting funds from co-developers Hudson and Related companies, Southtown, the last remaining housing development planed for Roosevelt Island, has already brought needed density to this isolated sliver of land. Six buildings and three taller residential buildings will add two million square feet total space. Planned and designed by Gruzen Samton, Southtown supplements the more experimental housing of Northtown, designed by Josep Lluís Sert and others, in the 1970s. Gruzen Samton also designed Northtown phase II. “The island has always been a challenge, and residents have often felt underserved by amenities like shopping,” said Jordan Samton, principal at Gruzen Samton. “With increased density and a flood of tourists for the Roosevelt memorial, there will be a different spirit on the island.” There’s even a new retail master plan to spiff up the Eastern European aesthetic of the dated retail signage.

According to the most recent census, the island’s population stands at just over 11,600. With 20,000 students and employees estimated to enroll at the CornellNYC Tech campus, the island will be a much busier place in coming years. No additional housing is planned on the island after the completion of Southtown and the 1,100 unit Cornell dorms. Samton wonders if the island needs a comprehensive masterplan encompassing additional housing, transportation, retail, and open space, comparable, say, to Battery Park City. “The island still has a future that is unpredictable,” he said.

Alan G. Brake