The 11 best things to do on Roosevelt Island

February 20, 2019

Roosevelt Island: it’s an opportunity to get away from New York while still being in New York. Whether you drive, bike, or take public transportation, this narrow strip of land sandwiched between Manhattan and Queens has much to offer in terms of a day’s delight. You’ve got parks, the arts, and enough photo opportunities to make your Instagram friends totally jelly. From the famous abandoned Smallpox Hospital to the flashy new buildings of Cornell Tech, here’s everything to do on your island excursion.

1. The Roosevelt Island Tramway
East 59th Street and 2nd Avenue, Manhattan

Via Flickr cc

Did you know the Roosevelt Island tram is North America’s first commuter aerial tramway? Built in the ’70s before the F train started making stops on the island, the tram provides a beautiful view of Manhattan’s Upper East Side and the East River. Even though it’s not operated by the MTA, it conveniently takes Metro cards.

2. The Octagon
888 Main Street

The Octagon, Roosevelt Island, Via Wiki Commons

What’s now attached to an apartment block complex was once the main entrance to the New York City Lunatic Asylum. Built in 1834, it was one of the first facilities for the mentally ill in the country. In 2006, the building was converted to residential use, and today, the Octagon tower is a highly sustainable building thanks to its utilization of solar panels and fuel cells. According to Green Building Elements, the Octagon was actually the first residential building to be powered by a 400-kW fuel cell! It’s estimated that the building reduces its carbon emissions by 790 metric tons annually.

3. The Blackwell House
500 Main Street

Blackwell House, Roosevelt IslandVia Flickr cc

Built in 1796, the Blackwell House was once the home of James Blackwell, whose father’s wife’s step-father, Captain John Manning, was granted control of the island after it was seized from the Dutch by the English in 1666. At that time, it became known as Manning Island. When Blackwell inherited the island, it became known as Blackwell Island, which was the island’s name for over 100 years. Eventually, New York City bought the cottage and turned it into living quarters for wardens of the island’s almshouse, hospitals, and penitentiary. The Blackwell House became a part of the National Register of Historic Places in 1972 and is today undergoing a renovation that will turn it into a community center (and NYC’s sixth-oldest farmhouse!).

4. Chapel of the Good Shepherd
543 Main Street

Chapel of the Good Shepherd, Roosevelt IslandVia Flickr cc

Just a short walk from the Blackwell House is the Chapel of the Good Shepherd. It was built in 1889 based on designs by the architect Frederick Clarke Withers, who was famous for making churches in the Gothic Revival style. It was originally built to serve the residents of Roosevelt Island’s various almshouses, although these days the Chapel is primarily used as a community center. It was designated a NYC landmark in 1976 and restored in 2003.

5. Franklin D. Roosevelt Four Freedoms Park
Southern tip of Roosevelt Island

Photo © James and Karla Murray for 6sqft

In 1973, Welfare Island was renamed Roosevelt Island in honor of former President Franklin D. Roosevelt, who also served as governor of New York from 1929 to 1933. This same year, late architect Louis Kahn revealed plans for a memorial, but his park and monument (designed to celebrate the Four Freedoms outlined by Roosevelt in his 1941 State of the Union address) did not come to fruition until October 2012 under the Four Freedoms Park Conservancy. In addition to a six-foot-tall bronze casting of FDR, Four Freedoms Park contains 120 Little Leaf Linden Trees, a 60-square-foot open plaza of granite, a 340-foot-long triangular lawn, and a rock barrier at the Island’s edge made up of 11,000 cubic yards of hand-placed granite.

6. Southpoint Park
Southeast tip of Roosevelt Island

South Point Park, Roosevelt IslandVia Flickr cc

Sitting adjacent to Four Freedoms Park, the seven-acre Southpoint Park brings together everything people love about Roosevelt Island: big lawns, gardens, great views, frolicking squirrels, and approachable cats. If you like twisting paths or cozy places to relax, Southpoint Park is the place for you.

7. Smallpox Hospital (“Renwick Ruins”)
Southpoint Park

Smallpox Hospital, Roosevelt Island, Renwick RuinsVia Wiki Commons

Roosevelt Island was once known as Welfare Island because it had several hospitals and a prison. Located in Southpoint Park, the Smallpox Hospital, now also known as Renwick Ruins, opened in 1856 and was designed by James Renwick Jr, famous for designing St. Patrick’s Cathedral. Made obsolete thanks to the smallpox vaccine, the hospital shuttered its doors in the 1950s. These days, outside of being the backdrop for spooky selfies, the Ruins are a feral cat colony. This home for wayward felines is operated by the Wildlife Freedom Foundation and can be found north of the hospital on the path that runs along the island’s eastern shore.

8. The Strecker Laboratory
Southpoint Park

Strecker Laboratory, Roosevelt IslandVia Wiki Commons

Also designed by Frederick Clarke Withers, Strecker Laboratory was built in 1892 as the first laboratory in the U.S. designed solely for the purpose of pathological and bacteriological research. Many of the doctors who cut their teeth at Strecker would go on to make historic contributions to laboratory sciences in the first half of the 20th century. These days, the building serves as a power conversion station for the subway lines that run under the island.

9. Blackwell Island Lighthouse
Northeast tip of Roosevelt Island

Blackwell Island Lighthouse, Roosevelt IslandVia Wiki Commons

In 1872, inmates of the island’s penitentiary built the 50-foot-tall Lighthouse using the island’s own stone. Like the Smallpox Hospital, it was designed by famed architect James Renwick, Jr. in his signature Gothic Revival style. Originally, the Lighthouse helped sailors navigate the East River’s treacherous waters; these days it’s a hotspot for BBQs and fishing in the surrounding Lighthouse Park and is a designated NYC landmark.

10. Cornell Tech
2 West Loop Road

Via Wiki Commons

Cornell Tech builds on the legacy of academic innovation started by the Strecker Laboratory. A joint venture between Cornell University and Technion (Israel’s Institute of Technology), Cornell Tech was one of Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s economic development initiatives. The master plan was designed by Skidmore, Owings & Merrill with James Corner Field Operations handling landscape design. Although the full, 12-acre campus isn’t expected to be fully completed until 2037, you can currently admire the Bloomberg Center, the city’s first net-zero building, which means it only uses electricity that it creates itself. The Tata Innovation Center and the House (the world’s tallest passive house that provides microhousing for students) opened in 2017.

11. Gallery RIVAA
527 Main Street

Since June 2001, the Roosevelt Island Visual Art Association (RIVAA), a roughly 35-member artist collective, has been working hard to bring art to Roosevelt Island. Housed in what was once a pharmacy, RIVAA showcases not just the work of its founding members but international artists as well. The organization also participates in local events and festivals.


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