The original Smallpox Hospital, designed by James Renwick, still stands today thanks to diligent restoration. (Click pic for detailed view)
Looking north over Roosevelt Island, which cleanly splits the East River. Picture the buildings gone, the bridges wiped away, replaced with fruit trees and a small farm. The island has adopted several names over the years, including Minnahanonck (‘It’s Nice To Be Here’), Varkens Island (aka Hog’s Island), and Manning’s Island.
Food fight! Conditions inside the prison — as in most places on the island — were guided by mischief and chaos. Harpers Magazine 1860 (courtesy NY Public Library)
The Lunatic Asylum, aka ‘the Octagon’, became as overcrowded as the island’s prisons, often with people who would not have been considered ‘crazy’ today. Only two wings of the asylum were ever completed. Today, the Octagon is a luxury apartment complex.
Male and female almshouses, catering to the homeless, the desperately poor and the elderly. Some residents would spend time at the penitentiary or work house, check out, and check back in here. (Images from here)
An illustration from 1868 expresses the dire scene at one of the island’s many hospitals. Confining all manner of sick and injured to one island might have been good for the general population, but was often a dangerous proximity for the sufferers, especially during epidemic time.
A dramatic change came in 1909 with the construction of the ‘Blackwell’s Island Bridge’, better known today as the Queensboro or 59th Street Bridge. A trolly stopped at the middle of the bridge, letting passengers off who then took an elevator down to the island. The elevator was dismantled by 1970.
An extraordinary look at the island: in 1903, Thomas Edison made a short film using the island as a backdrop. The views include the lighthouse, the Octagon, the penitentiary and the construction work of what would become the 59th Street Bridge
You can find anything you want to know about Roosevelt Island at two excellent blogs, Roosevelt Islander and Roosevelt Island 360. The Main Street Wire, the RI community newspaper, has a great website with an exhaustive history timeline. And naturally, the always reliable Correction History, for all you prison history buffs, has some great info as well.
Click here for some prior articles we’ve written on this blog about Roosevelt here, include Charles Dickens’ visit to the island and an article about the late godfather of RI, ‘Grampa Munster’ Al Lewis.