New York City

Roosevelt Island Historic Sites Guide

Roosevelt Island historic sites extend its full length from FDR Four Freedoms State Park, across from the United Nations to the Lighthouse in Hell Gate. Come take a south to north tour with us.

By David Stone

Unlike most historic places, Roosevelt Island is multi-themed, top to bottom. Variety rules. And it starts with the original inspiration. A serene tribute to Franklin Delano Roosevelt.

Related: Roosevelt Island Gay History

FDR Four Freedoms Park

FDR Four Freedoms Park, D Day 75th Anniversary
In 2019, FDR Four Freedoms Park decorated its community steps with a tribute to the 75th Anniversary of D Day.

Overseen by an agile conservancy, FDR Four Freedoms Park manages to be current and historic at once.

Built as one of the final pieces in developing a community named after the 32nd President, its serenity echoes his highest values. FDR’s 1941 State of the Union, his Four Freedoms Speech, set a standard for modern human rights.

Permanent exhibits include a bust of Roosevelt at the bottom of a tree-lined meadow and The Room. Monolithic blocks in The Room call out details of the Four Freedoms that inform the United Nations Charter.

While the park is a quiet retreat in winter, it hosts both contemporary and historic events from spring into autumn.

Getting there…

At the southernmost point on Roosevelt Island, FDR Four Freedoms Park is easily accessed by walking from either the F Train Subway Station or from the also historic Roosevelt Island Tram.

Free Red Buses can be boarded at either location. Get off at Southpoint Park and walk through Southpoint to the adjoining park’s entrance.

FDR Four Freedoms Park is best appreciated by comparing it with this shot of the area before the park was built. The Renwick-designed Smallpox Hospital is in the background, along with the Queensboro Bridge.

The Smallpox Hospital

Among many institutions once busy on Roosevelt Island, the Smallpox hospital, now in ruins, draws many visitors.

Designed by James Renwick, the hospital opened in 1856. It lasted with its original intention for less than 20 years, but later, it served multiple purposes, finally as a nursing school.

Roosevelt Island Historic Sites: Smallpox Hospital
The Smallpox Hospital is the only ruin designated by New York City as a landmark.

While Renwick’s building, plus two later extensions, lasted less than 100 years, the old hospital is revered by the architect’s admirers. Spotlights shine on its classic beauty every night.

Getting there…

The Renwick Smallpox Hospital ruins are inside Southpoint Park. Walk a quarter-mile south from the Roosevelt Island Tram or Subway Station. Or ride a free Red Bus to Southpoint.

Cornell Tech: The House

The House, Largest Passive House in the World, Cornell Tech
Of more current historic vintage: The House at Cornell Tech. When opened, it was the largest passive residence in the world. Students and instructors live here.
View from the Passive House Lounge
In perspective: View of the century old Queensboro Bridge and Midtown from The House.

Roosevelt Island Tram

The Roosevelt Island Tram opened in 1976. It was essential, the first and only commuter tram in the world. Plans to scuttle it once a subway station opened failed because residents loved the vital glide into Manhattan.

A fight saved the Tram, allowing a nearly complete rebuild in 2010.

Roosevelt Island Tram
The Tram lifts off for a four minute ride into Manhattan.

The ride is brief, only four minutes, but breathtaking, especially the first time. But it’s also cheap and integrated with the MTA’s MetroCard system. Current cost: $2.75 each way with a free transfer into or out of the subway/bus system.

Queensboro Bridge from the Tram
Historic view: The Queensboro Bridge from the Tram. The future site of FDR Four Freedoms Park is in the background. Fine Art Photography Print by Deborah Julian.

A ride on Roosevelt Island historic Tram, gliding between towers and emerging to a vast cityscape, can be spectacular after dark.

In the Tram Plaza, check out the Roosevelt Island Historical Society Kiosk, a great resource for information, gifts and souvenirs. The kiosk once served as an entrance to the street car crossing the Queensboro Bridge, serving Roosevelt Island by elevator.

Get to know Roosevelt Island in history…

Roosevelt Island Historic Sites North of the Tram

Alice Childress Memorial Plaque
A literary giant, Alice Childress, lived the final years of her life as a Roosevelt Island pioneer, co-founder the first local library. But after the public school nearly destroyed this plaque in her honor, RIOC staged a rescue. Visitors can find it in a peaceful area south of the Mediation Steps.

Blackwell House

Blackwell House,
A national historic site since 1972, Blackwell House is a genuine 18th Century farmhouse. RIOC is currently finishing a full, authentic restoration. When reopened in 2020, visitors will see not just a restored interior but an exhibit of photography put up by the Roosevelt Island Historical Society.

Chapel of the Good Shepherd

Renamed “Good Shepherd Community Center,” the historic Chapel of the Good Shepherd is often used for town hall style events, these days.

Registered as a National Historic Site, the Chapel of the Good Shepherd was built in 1888. No longer a full time church, it’s maintained by the State and also serves as community meeting place.

Located at 543 Main Street, in the center of the original town, the church’s front does not face the street. For reasons lost to history, Main Street skirts the rear end.

Walk around the plaza to enjoy its well-kept rustic entrance.

The Octagon

The Octagon under a full moon, Roosevelt Island Historic Site
The Octagon Tower, once the entrance to a lunatic asylum, is graceful under a full moon on a winter night. Newly built wings form a housing complex centered on Roosevelt Island history.

Opened as the New York Mental Health Hospital in 1841, the Octagon survived fires and decades of neglect before being restored in 2006. It was registered as a National Historic Site in 1974.

The Hospital served as a launchpad for Nellie Bly‘s investigative journalism. More on that in our next and last historic site.

Getting there…

Located appropriately at 888 Main Street, the MTA’s Q102 bus and RIOC Red Buses all stop at the Octagon. But probably the most enjoyable access is a walk north along Main Street or the West Promenade where you can enjoy the city skyline across the East River.

Lighthouse Park

Roosevelt Island’s historic lighthouse went up in 1872, known then as the Blackwell Island Lighthouse. Its origins are obscure, but it guided ships through Hell Gate.

Related's Roosevelt Island ignorance exposed.
Roosevelt Island’s landmark Lighthouse guided ships where the Island juts into Hell Gate.

Designated as both a national and local landmark, the lighthouse anchors a tranquil park where Roosevelt Island divides the East River in Hell Gate.

Popular for picnics and meditation, Lighthouse Park is expanding. A near term upgrade also includes Amanda Matthews’s Nellie Bly Memorial, about to break ground, this year.

In June, the park hosts the innovative public art of FIGMENT NYC.

Getting there…

Stroll up the West Promenade from Main Street or either of the last bus stops on Roosevelt Island to enter the final stop on our tour of Roosevelt Island historic sites.

2 replies »

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.