David W. Dunlap, April 14, 2009
When we last left the haunting Gothic ruin of the old Smallpox Hospital on Roosevelt Island, it was more ruined than ever.
While the abandoned, roofless, 153-year-old building was awaiting structural stabilization in late 2007, a large section of its north facade collapsed spontaneously, apparently the victim of moisture-filled interior walls expanding and contracting through endless cycles of freezing and thawing.
Preservationists were especially dismayed, having long urged that some measures be taken to protect the structure, which was designed by James Renwick Jr., the architect of St. Patrick’s Cathedral.
“They should bring in the cavalry and fix this important landmark,” Peg Breen, the president of the New York Landmarks Conservancy, said at the time.
The cavalry — in the form of engineers, architects, masons and ironworkers — has arrived. The freestanding granite, brick and rubblestone walls have been repointed. Even more noticeably, the first two of five steel framework towers have been erected within the walls. These towers will be connected to the old walls to help keep the remaining structure upright while permanent plans are drawn up for its reuse. The happiest discovery of the project was that the necessary bracing could be constructed entirely inside the picturesque walls, which are illuminated at night. There turned out to be no need for exterior scaffolding.
Last week, City Room was given a tour of the increasingly sturdy ruins by Stephen H. Shane, the president and chief executive of the Roosevelt Island Operating Corporation, the state agency that oversees the island; Andy Stone, director of the New York City program of the Trust for Public Land, which is overseeing the $4.5 million stabilization project as part of the larger Southpoint Park plan; and E. Timothy Marshall, the president of ETM Associates, a New York City Parks Department veteran who is a planning consultant to the trust.
“I think they’ve done a wonderful job,” Ms. Breen said on Monday, “and we’re just thrilled.”
Copyright 2009 The New York Times Company
Opened in 1856, this smallpox hospital on the southern tip of Blackwell’s Island (now Roosevelt Island) was part of a multitude of public institutions to care for New York City’s unfortunate and destitute. The island sits between Queens and Manhattan, and was easily accessible by ferry; it was home to a prison, insane asylum, and other similar facilities. The remote location made this a prime location for the care of victims of smallpox, although both charity cases and paying patrons were admitted.
The 100 bed facility was designed by architect James Renwick Jr., whose more notable works include St. Patrick’s Cathedral and Grace Church.
The lower floors were used for charity cases and the paying inpatients were kept in private rooms on the upper floors. The original structure was divided into 29 wards, the smallest of which contained 13 beds and the largest 39.
As of 1872, an annual number of 7,000 patients were treated, with an average of 450 deaths.
Smallpox Hospital, Blackwells Island, N.Y. circa 1870 (Part of Robert N. Dennis collection)
The imposing gothic structure was emptied of patients in 1886, and was used both as a nurses home as well as The Maternity and Charity Hospital Training School (Charity Hospital was located just north of Renwick, later known as City Hospital). Two wings were added to the original block with a similar design: the south wing in 1903-1904 and the north wing in 1904-1905. The island was renamed Roosevelt Island in 1973, and it was during this time Renwick fell into ruin even though it was deemed a historic landmark worthy of preserving.
A preservation effort was attempted in 1975 under the direction of architect Giorgio Cavaglieri to help preserve the exterior facade, but no other attempts were made to save the building from collapse and decay.
Only the gray gneiss and brick foundation remain; no roof, no inner walls, and barely any floors. Wooden timbers support the balconies from the 1975 preservation effort, as well as some rickety scaffolding inside the foyer. It is now behind a fence, and has been designated a national historic landmark.
Roosevelt Island: Is this the start of a new look?
BY JASON SHEFTELL , January 24th 2008,
Everyone has a story about Roosevelt Island. The first time you set foot on the 2-mile long, 800-foot-wide swath of land can be jarring because of the oddly shaped buildings, large hospitals on both ends of the island and a dark and dingy Main St. The island has long been known for its history as a place where physically disabled and psychiatric patients were treated.
With the luxury of more parkland than apartment buildings, the island should be an idyllic Manhattan location with magnificent skyline views of three boroughs. For residents, however, it can also mean living with complex community politics.
The island is split into Northtown and Southtown with a lighthouse park on the north end of the island and communal gardens that attract organic food growers in the summer. A Little League field overlooks the East Channel of the East River. There are tennis courts on both ends of the island, and a park where the ruins of a 19th-century hospital are surrounded by wild vegetation.
You would think residents would be smiling. Mostly, they are. But this is New York City. Opinions are currency, and the people on Roosevelt Island have them.
“For the most part we have lived off the good graces of New York State for the better part of the past 30 years,” says Judith Berdy, president of the island’s Historical Society.
“There are some who think we have suffered. Politics is a disease out here,” adds Berdy, who has lived in three residences on the island in that time.
The management: Stephen Shane runs the Roosevelt Island Operating Committee (RIOC), the group designated by the state to manage the island’s tram system, landscaping, public safety and Main St. retail component. He was appointed in 2007 by Gov. Spitzer.
An ex-real-estate attorney and special assistant to commissioner of the New York State Department of Housing, Shane has worked with developers to bring upscale residential buildings to the island while trying to maintain affordable housing at a time when some residents want to privatize public housing and take the real estate money and run.
“You cannot do everything at once,” says Shane, who according to some has made more progress in six months than several of his predecessors did in several years. “People may have got spoiled out here. Sometimes I think the residents forget what it is to live in Manhattan, the Bronx or Queens.”
Nevertheless, renting retail space on Main St. is still a problem that needs fixing. Because of legislation enacted to prevent state-operated groups from committing fraud, it takes nine months to a year to go through the approval process to rent an 800-square-foot store on Roosevelt Island.
“I’ve tried several things to exempt us from this legislation,” says Shane. “I’m still trying.
“This is one of the most unique and special places in the world, but it’s also the most complex.”
Renting or buying an apartment on Main St. falls under the Mitchell Lama affordable housing program and can take to two to five years. One resident, for example, waited 13 years for a $26,000 studio.
Northtown: On the north side of the island, the Octagon building might be New York City’s finest example of historical refurbishment. The cupola of the old mental asylum was renovated and developed by Becker & Becker, architects with offices in Fairfield, Conn., and Union Square, who have created more than 400 high-end and 100 middle-income units.
Some residents sued the developer, trying to reclaim parkland, but lost, and so the Octagon becomes part of the island’s future.
“You shouldn’t restore something if you don’t have a good history of having done it well before,” says Bruce Becker, who says that plans for a water taxi to and from Manhattan are in place.
“Developing 5 acres on the coast of Manhattan with an historical conversion became a personal obsession for me. I wanted to do it right.”
The Octagon looks like a country club. The The LEED (leadership in energy and environmental design)-certified building has a private pool, day care center, art gallery, computer center and a deli in the lobby. Nearby parkland has public tennis courts, barbecues and seating areas along the promenade.
Rents range from $2,000 for a 510-square-foot studio to $4,500 for a three-bedroom with water views.
Manhattan Park, a 19-year-old, four-building complex on Main St. in Northtown, has one-bedrooms renting for $2,095 and two-bedrooms for $2,795. Three- and four-bedrooms are also available, starting at $3,395.
Southtown: After 30 years, the area around the tram and subway station has been developed into six residential towers. The well-landscaped area, developed by Related and the Hudson Companies, Inc., has already brought a Starbucks, Duane Reade, a Japanese restaurant and a pizza parlor to the island.
Riverwalk Court condo, the fifth building in the development, has a 713-square-foot one-bedroom/ one-bath starting at $595,000, with a monthly maintenance of $598 and annual taxes of $58. Two-bedroom/two-baths go for $935,000. These prices are 30% less than in midtown.
“We’re committed to nine buildings in this section of the island,” says Bruce Beal Jr., executive vice president of Related Companies. “The buildings, the retail and landscaping add value to the area’s tremendous appeal.”
Living there: Roosevelt Island’s 14,000 residents are a mix of different races, income levels and nationalities, including representation by workers at the United Nations. Walking the island’s periphery, I see joggers, walkers and people enjoying the Manhattan skyline. Seagulls swoop to and from the shore. Because of the specialist hospitals in the area, you’ll see many motorized wheelchairs.
“This is a social experiment gone right,” says Matthew Katz, president of the Roosevelt Island Residential Association, the same group conducting elections to propose local board nominations to RIOC President Shane.
“It’s an urban ecological center with a small- town feel minutes from midtown. There is no other place in the world like it.”
P.S./I.S.287 is in the middle of the island between Southtown and Northtown on Main St. Every parent I ran into said something positive about the school.
There are no garbage trucks on the island. Each Roosevelt Island residential structure works with an AVAC garbage disposable system that transports garbage via underground compression tubes to a centralized trash compacting center.
Getting there: Take the Roosevelt Island tram at 59th St. and Second Ave. It’s a marvelous ride with views of Manhattan skyscrapers and the 59th St. bridge.
The F Train stops on the island, but residents complain about overcrowding even during non-rush hour hours. The Red Bus, which costs $1, on Main St. and runs about every 10 minutes. To drive, the Welfare Island bridge connects with Queens. The Q102 bus goes to Astoria, making stops at Roosevelt Island.
The history: After the Dutch bought the land from two chiefs of the Canarsie Tribe in 1637, it passed through an English family to a son-in-law named Robert Blackwell. In the early 19th century, the city purchased Blackwell Island for $16,000.
It became a prison for malcontents, murderers and juveniles. A “lunatic asylum” with an octagonal cupola was built on the north side of the island.
In 1921, Blackwell Island was renamed Welfare Island. The prison closed in 1935 and moved to Rikers Island. The hospitals and research centers remained. Until the mid-1960s, the island was seen as primarily as a medical facility before contemplating the development of the barren land between the hospitals.
In 1969, the city leased the land to the state, which invested $180 million in infrastructure for plumbing and electricity, preparing the island for residents.
Architects Philip Johnson and John Burgee created a mixed-use utopian plan with 5,000 units of affordable to upper-income housing for an eventual population of 15,000.
Finally, in 1973, the island was named Roosevelt Island, in honor President Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt with new residential buildings lining Main St. Eastwood, with more than 1,000 units, reserves 25% of the apartments for the elderly or disabled.
The island, finally, began to take shape as a residential neighborhood.
It’s clear Roosevelt Island residents don’t know how good they have it. Yes, they’ve worked hard to build a small-town feel and they deserve to maintain it, but they might want to try working with each other as opposed to against each other.
This is a fantastic and peaceful place to live. Without the complaints, lawsuits, constant jockeying for political representation and state problems with the retail, the island has a chance to become an outdoor wonderland with a front-view view to the finest skyline in the world. What could look like Catalina Island off the coast of Los Angles or the South Street Seaport instead resembles abandoned retail stretches of the South Bronx circa 1976. It’s depressing, and the state needs to take a look.
As for the politics, I just hope the personal-interest groups don’t turn a beautiful neighborhood into a hard place to live, or worse place to visit.
Copyright 2008 The New York Daily News
Whoosh! The Trash Can as a Pneumatic Tube
By EMILY S. RUEB
Underneath the 40-block strip of land between Queens and Manhattan known as Roosevelt Island is a complex system of pneumatic tubes that connects the island’s 12,000 or so residents. But it’s not mail that’s hurtling through them at at 30 miles an hour. It’s garbage. Vacuum cleaners, Christmas trees and last night’s unfinished dinner have all passed through the intestines of the Automated Vacuum Assisted Collections facility, a pneumatic trash system built in 1975 that seems forever ahead of its time.
An exhibit titled “FAST TRASH: Roosevelt Island‘s Pneumatic Tubes and the Future of Cities,” examines this Jetsons-like system and how it can be used as a model for hauling away unwanted items in other cities. Curated by the architect Juliette Spertus and the design firm Project Projects, the month-long exhibit opens on April 22, Earth Day, at the Rivaa Gallery on the island.
“The point is to get the conversation started,” Ms. Spertus said. By showing how other cities like Barcelona, Macao and Stockholm are retrofitting or using the technology, she hopes that the range of projects displayed will provoke people to think differently about urban planning. A panel discussion at the New York University Wagner Graduate School of Public Service called “Comparative Garbage Collection Strategy and Urban Planning” will follow on May 6.
The “Fast Trash” show will dissect the pneumatic transport system using explanatory diagrams and video interviews with the engineers who maintain the system, and offer a little bit of whimsy. A selection of drawings by students from the Child School explore what garbage collection might look like in a future without roads.
The show also celebrates the 40th anniversary of the master plan that the architects John Burgee and Philip Johnson developed for what was then called Welfare Island.
Judy Berdy, the president of the Roosevelt Island Historical Society and a 32-year resident, said she hoped the exhibit would shine a light on the island she called “a perfect Utopian village.” She praised the clean and efficient trash system, but said it was in perpetual jeopardy.
“Every year the sanitation department threatens to cut it from the budget, and every year our councilman saves it,” she said.
The staff of eight full-time engineers perform regular repairs and maintenance on the system, monitoring the vacuum seals and gauges, which are often on the fritz. They have halted the engines for residents who panicked about missing false teeth, wedding rings and pocket books that have been sucked under the city’s streets. And even let them sift through a 12-ton pile of refuse.
Ms. Spertus compared the trash tubes with another better-known and relatively beloved piece of infrastructure on the island, the tramway that connects it to Manhattan. Because the trash system is invisible to residents, she said, it suffers from a lack of respect.
“What they like about it is, they don’t have to think about it,” said Ms. Spertus. “It’s not something you can ride on.”