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  • Writer's pictureAbby Brenker

The Historic Buildings of Roosevelt Island

One of my favorite neighborhoods of New York City is Roosevelt Island, located smack dab between Manhattan and Queens in the East River. I visit Roosevelt Island often. It’s easily accessible by ferry, subway and tram. Some of my favorite historic buildings reside here.


The Island was previously known as Manning Island, Blackwell Island until 1921, and Welfare Island until 1973 when it was finally renamed to Roosevelt Island. Locals referred to the land as Ward Island for many years because of the number of hospitals and medical facilities housed there. Dating back before colonization the Lenape people called the island Minnehanonck.

In 1666 the island was owned by Captain John Manning, it next was passed to his son-in-law Robert Blackwell. The Blackwell Home was originally constructed in 1796. Despite how well maintained it looks, it’s actually the oldest structure on the island. The house was built by Jacob Blackwell, who was the great-grandson of Robert.


The Blackwell family was incredibly influential to New York City and the United States as a whole. Across generations The Blackwell’s fought for the abolition of slavery and women’s rights. Many members of the family made incredible progress with these plights.


Elizabeth Blackwell was the first female doctor in the United States, along with her sister Emily, Elizabeth established an infirmity in lower Manhattan that is still active today.


Blackwell lighthouse was built in 1872 on the northern tip of Roosevelt Island in NYC. For many years, there were local legends that a patient at the nearby asylum actually built the lighthouse, you used to be able to find the following words inscribed in a stone next to the tower:


This is the work

Was done by

John McCarthy

Who built the Light

House from the bottom to the

Top All ye who do pass by may

Pray for his soul when he dies.


Though the lighthouse was actually built by James Renwick Jr. The lighthouse was in commission until 1940. These are the ruins of the Renwick Smallpox Hospital, which sits on the southern end of the island.


It first opened in 1856 as a 100 bed hospital, strategically placed on the southern tip of an island in the hopes of containing the spread of the disease. The hospital remained active for 100 years before it was closed down and turned into a medical training facility before going fully defunct and registered as a National Historic Site. Though the ruins are not currently open to the public, they are supposed to be after the completion of a $4.5M stabilization project.


The Octagon was built in 1834. Originally, this was the front entrance to the New York City Lunatics Asylum, also known as the NYC Mental Health Hospital. Roosevelt Island was called Welfare Island by the locals because of the number of hospitals, prisons and other facilities on the small strip of land. This hospital received national attention after Nellie Bly tricked the hospital into admitting her. She observed the conditions for ten days before she was released. Her journalism exposed harsh and inhumane conditions and inspired reform.


This branch of the hospital closed down in 1955. And as an abandoned building endured two fires. After restoration in 2006, 888 Main Street on Roosevelt Island was turned into a luxury apartment complex. Complete with a family swimming pool and solar power. The Octagon renovations have been awarded for their sustainability efforts. It’s now on the National Register of Historic Places.


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