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.
Estimated reading time: 9 minutes
By David Stone
Note: With construction going on in multiple locations, we are updating this article.
FDR Four Freedoms Park
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.
At the southernmost point on Roosevelt Island, access FDR Four Freedoms Park easily by walking south from either the F Train Subway Station, the Roosevelt Island NYC Ferry Landing or from the also historic Roosevelt Island Tram.
Board free Red Buses 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.
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.
The Renwick Smallpox Hospital ruins are inside Southpoint Park. Walk a quarter-mile south from the Roosevelt Island Tram, the Roosevelt Island NYC Ferry Landing or Subway Station. Or ride a free Red Bus to Southpoint.
Cornell Tech: 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.
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.
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.
Get to know Roosevelt Island in history…
- The Queensboro Bridge / Greater Astoria and Roosevelt Island Historical Societies
- Roosevelt Island (Images of America) / Roosevelt Island Historical Society
- Damnation Island / Stacy Horn
Roosevelt Island Historic Sites North of the Tram
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.
A national historic site since 1972, Blackwell House is a genuine 18th Century farmhouse. RIOC’s full, authentic restoration is now done. Visitors see not just a restored interior but an exhibit of photography put up by the Roosevelt Island Historical Society. Note: Blackwell House is currently surrounded by sidewalk and plaza paving construction, but it’s open for visitors without restrictions.
Chapel of the Good Shepherd
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.
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.
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 (Temporarily Closed)
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. Note: Apart from a small slice on the west side, Lighthouse Park is closed while the lighthouse undergoes restoration and the state installs a Nellie Bly Monument.
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.
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.
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