Monday, December 17, 2012

Is This the Blandest Landmark in New York City?

The New York Times' F.Y.I. column did a piece last week on Roosevelt Island — specifically, the evolution of the isle's name.

Roosevelt Island's Blackwell House, with the smokestacks of the Con Ed substation in the background.

From the article:
The island was inherited by Captain Manning’s stepdaughter, Mary Manningham Blackwell, and was deeded by the early 1700s to Robert Blackwell, Captain Manning’s son-in-law, who lived and farmed there. A farmhouse built by one of his descendants, James Blackwell, dating from 1796 to 1804, still stands on its original site just south of the Queensboro Bridge. A city landmark owned by New York State, it was restored in 1973, deteriorated in the 1990s and is being re-restored, according to the Roosevelt Island Historical Society, which hopes to use it again as a community center.
The city acquired the island in 1828, but the name remained Blackwell’s Island while the city operated a prison, a lunatic asylum, a charity hospital, a smallpox hospital, a workhouse and other Dickensian horrors there. The Blackwell farmhouse was used as a residence for some penitentiary administrators. 
The city renamed the notorious place Welfare Island in 1921 and began a series of reforms: creating new hospitals, moving the prison to Rikers Island in 1935 and developing a residential community with a new name, Roosevelt Island, starting in 1971. It fulfilled that name’s promise this year when a memorial park to Franklin Delano Roosevelt opened at the island’s southern tip.
You often hear that the island was home to a mental asylum and smallpox hospital (perhaps because the buildings that housed those institutions still exist). But I'd forgotten that it used to be a prison as well. I suppose living on Roosevelt Island is a bit like living on Alcatraz. (Should I add it to my list of coolest island prisons?)

As for the Blackwell House (pictured above), it's probably one of the least remarkable landmarks in New York City. Yes, it's more than 200 years old. And yes, it's odd to have a farmhouse surrounded by high-rises. But it's also wholly unremarkable; you'd see entire neighborhoods filled with these homes in a typical New England town, often with more of their original details.

But now that I know it was the residence of former prison wardens, maybe that makes it a little more exciting.