Undiscovered New York: Roosevelt Island

The average visitor to New York has already seen Roosevelt Island. Or rather, they’ve seen it from a distance. You know that crazy island sitting in the middle of the East River across from Midtown? The one with the tram ride that lets you use your public transit card? Everyone knows it’s there, but not nearly as many make the effort to go for a visit. You know what? Let them miss out. A five-minute ride in an alpine-style gondola to arrive at one of the city’s least-trafficked destinations, boasting spooky abandoned hospitals, lush walking trails, quirky architecture and million-dollar views of Manhattan.

Ironically, from the 1820’s until the 1950’s most people on Roosevelt Island weren’t there for the scenery: they were trying desperately to get away. After the Blackwells sold their private island to the city in 1828, it was renamed Welfare Island and given a very different purpose as home to the city’s most notorious prisons, insane asylums and smallpox hospitals. Welfare Island was for many years a forbidden and isolated place, with a reputation that kept the curious at bay.

Want to learn more about this strange island’s history? Ready to leave your assumptions behind? Join Undiscovered New York as we investigate Roosevelt Island. Click below for what we found.The Tram Ride
Visiting Roosevelt Island doesn’t require any special boat trips. To get there, all you need is a New York City metrocard. By far the most popular way to travel is the Roosevelt Island Tramway. You can pick up the tramway at 59th Street and Second Avenue, with trips leaving every 15 minutes or so.

As the Swiss-engineered gondolas briskly lift you hundreds of feet above Midtown Manhattan, you’ll be treated to bird’s eye views of the 59th Street Bridge, the East River and the Manhattan skyline. Just 5 minutes or so later and you’re back on the ground, ready to explore Roosevelt Island. Afraid of heights? Travelers can also take the F Train to the Roosevelt Island stop.

Exploring the Smallpox Hospital
Get off the Tramway and head South towards Roosevelt Island’s premier attraction, the ruins of the 19th Century Smallpox hospital. This Gothic Revival hospital was first constructed in the 1850’s to help quarantine patients suffering from this particularly contagious diseases. More than 150 years later, the stone structure lays in ruins, empty windows whistling with the ghosts of lonely river breezes. A short walk away is the island’s empty southern tip offering visitors unbroken views of nearby Manhattan, Brooklyn and Queens along the East River. This proverbial waterway, always the butt of New Yorker jokes, never looked so grand.

The Blackwell House and Octagon
Head back North the way you came. As you walk, make sure to enjoy the picturesque views of Manhattan’s UN Headquarters and Chrysler Building towering above you just across the river. We’re heading towards The Octagon, a famous architectural landmark on the Island’s northern edge. Take your time – this walk will take you about 20-30 minutes, bringing you through the island’s center.

About 15 minutes north is the Blackwell House, a remnant of the Island’s history as a private farm. Built in the late 1700’s, it is the oldest surviving structure on the island. The structure predates Roosevelt Island’s purchase by the city and its conversion to a large welfare complex of prisons and hospitals.

Finally as you continue your stroll, you’ll come to The Octagon, another of the Island’s most famous structures. Like many of the buildings on Roosevelt Island, this intriguing landmark started life as the entrance to a lunatic asylum opened in the 1840’s. Today you’d have to be crazy to turn down one of the building’s luxury residences, as it’s been turned into upscale condominiums. How times change.