Roosevelt Island stretches down the East River for a mile and three-quarters, relatively equidistant between Long Island City in Queens and Manhattan’s Upper East Side. For most of the nineteenth century and first half of the twentieth century, it was a place that New Yorkers took in from the edges of Manhattan or Queens but rarely visited. After all, what it housed was a prison, an almshouse, a workhouse, and several hospitals. Of the latter, one was a lunatic asylum, one a charity hospital, and one a smallpox hospital.
In reference to those main occupants and institutional structures, this island went by the name Welfare Island from 1921 to 1971, the year when it was renamed in honor of America’s great 32nd President, Franklin Delano Roosevelt (FDR). Before 1921, Roosevelt Island was known as Blackwell’s Island, having been deeded by the early 1700s to Robert Blackwell. Even earlier, the Lenape Indians knew it as Minnehanonck, and New York’s first Dutch settlers called it Varkens Eylandt (Hog Island).
|Roosevelt Island, NYC, Queensboro Bridge, 1909, View from South, Gustav Lindenthal (engineer) & Henry Hornbostel (architect),|
The Queensboro Bridge, seen from the south in the photo above, was completed in 1909 and designed by the engineer, Gustav Lindenthal and architect Henry Hornbostel. Although it is now officially titled the Ed Koch Queensboro Bridge, I and most New Yorkers keep it short and either leave out the reference to New York’s 105th mayor or simply call it the 59th Street Bridge.
Lindenthal was an important early 20th century engineer and, by 1902, had been appointed the New York City Commissioner of Bridges.
Equally important was the architect, Hornbostel, who has twenty-two designs listed on the National Register of Historic Places. In my estimation, his greatest building is the State Education Building in Albany–not because of its monumental exterior colonnade, which is what is usually illustrated and cited, but for its major interior reading room, the vaulted ceiling of which was obviously inspired by one of the truly great 19th century interiors: Henri Labrouste’s reading room for the Bibilothèque Nationale in Paris. Unless I manage, some day, to dig out my old negatives of Hornbostel’s interior, this flickr link may offer the only on-line photo of that spectacular interior space.
|Roosevelt Island, NYC, Trolley Kiosk, 1909, by Henry Hornbostel and Gustav Lindenthal|
Just slightly west of the tramway unloading platform is this elegant, decorative kiosk of cast-iron and terracotta infill panels. It, too, is a design by Lindenthal and Hornbostel from 1909 and was one of five that marked the original Trolley Stations. This one, which first found a new life at the Brooklyn Children’s Museum, was re-sited in 2005 to Roosevelt Island, as seen here under the Queensboro Bridge. You can see the tramway cables just above it in the upper left-hand corner. It now serves as the Island’s Visitors Center.
|Roosevelt Island, NYC, Allee and Promenade, View North|
The 1971 re-naming of Roosevelt Island marked the beginning of it as a commercial and residential center as well as of the idea to honor its new namesake with a memorial: the Four Freedoms Park, designed by Louis I. Kahn. In the late 1960s, Mayor John Lindsay, the New York Times, and others, pushed for the creation of a new community that would be integrated by race and income, and today a vibrant mixed-income neighborhood exists and grows north of the Queensboro Bridge.
However, this blog post will take us south from the Bridge, culminating in Kahn’s Four Freedoms Park, which opened in late October of 2012.
I have selected a few photographs to serve as significant markers on this path south. This first one, seen above, shows the tree-lined promenade on the Island’s western, Manhattan side. This elegant Riverside Promenade now extends from the northern tip of the island and its old lighthouse to the Four Freedoms Park at the southern tip. To walk its length takes 30-40 minutes, and it is a popular gathering and recreation area for residents and visitors. In fact, I had to wait for quite a few minutes to capture it, as seen here, relatively free of people.
|Roosevelt Island, NYC, Building B, Goldwater Welfare Hospital for Chronic Disease, 1937-1939, Balcony, Isadore Rosenfeld (architect)|
This detail of a cantilevered balcony with its rusting, steel railings is representative of the International Style of architecture. The several buildings that made up Goldwater Hospital don’t lend themselves easily to being photographed in their entirety, and–to tell the truth–I really was more interested in capturing this bit of romantic decay. After all, the International Style was predicated on a machine aesthetic of clean lines and white streamlined surfaces and it, especially, suffers when subjected to the ravages of time and poor upkeep.
The Goldwater complex opened in 1939 as America’s first hospital dedicated solely to treating chronic diseases. It was built on the site of the Blackwell Island Penitentiary, whose prisoners were relocated to Riker’s Island in 1932. For several years, beginning in 1941, one unit of the complex was dedicated to medical research under the CPS–the Civilian Public Service. Here, conscientious objectors could avoid combat and yet serve their country by volunteering as human “guinea pigs,” enabling physicians from Columbia and NYU to study the effects of malaria, cold weather, starvation and certain other conditions relevant to the war effort.
The hospital complex closed in December of 2013 and is now being dismantled to make way for the new Cornell Tech campus, after Cornell–partnering with the Israel Institute of Technology–won a competition to build a “world-class technology and engineering institution” in its place. The first building to go up will be a five-story academic center by Thom Mayne and his LA-based firm, Morphosis; with its “lilypad” photovoltaic cells covering and even extending beyond its roof, the Morphosis building promises to be New York’s first net-zero building.
Without doubt, when completed in the following two decades, this new Campus will give Roosevelt Island a radically new identity and will provide a much more welcoming introduction to the parks of the lower Island than those derelict hospital buildings. Open this link to see some of the architectural renderings proposed for this new Cornell Tech campus.
|Roosevelt Island, NYC, Doric Sentinels,|
The area south of the Goldwater Hospital complex and extending to the Four Freedoms Park has been landscaped with hillocks and planted, mainly with wildflowers. It opened officially in August of 2011 and is now known as Southpoint Park. Scattered within its seven acres are also remnants of other, older buildings. Among these are the three wonderfully-rusted, cast iron Doric columns (above). These were salvaged from a mid-nineteenth century hospital from this site, City Hospital (which either was built in 1832–and burned down in 1858–or was its replacement, completed in 1861).
|Long Island City, Queens, Pepsi-Cola Sign, 1936, by Artkraft Strauss, View from Roosevelt Island|
|Long Island City, Queens, Pepsi-Cola Sign, 1936, by Artkraft Strauss, View from Roosevelt Island|
Southpoint Park also provides some of the best views of that iconic piece of unintentional “Pop Art,” the Pepsi-Cola Sign. This 147-foot long sign, once mounted far up on a factory building that no longer exists, has been accommodated in just about its same location, only much lower to the ground. It was designed in 1936 by Artkraft Strauss, the firm that also made many of the most memorable Times Square displays, like the Camel Cigarette sign that blew smoke rings into the air.
Anyone who has taken Manhattan’s East River Drive (a.k.a the FDR Drive) at night has a certain intimacy, albeit a distant one, with this Pepsi-Cola Sign. It’s continued existence is a tribute to PepsiCo, which had abandoned its Queens buildings by 1998 but retained ownership of the sign (architectural cognoscenti will realize this as a great affirmation of the ideas of Robert Venturi). Also, the designer of the new buildings being developed for the Long Island City site, Bernardo Fort-Brescia of the firm, Arquitectonica, was in full agreement with PepsiCo regarding retention of the sign.
|Roosevelt Island, NYC, Smallpox Hospital, 1854-1856, by James Renwick, Jr.|
The last building before Four Freedoms Park may be the best known and most melancholy structure on the Island. This is the remains of the Smallpox Hospital, designed by James Renwick, Jr., the architect best known as the designer of St. Patrick’s Cathedral in Manhattan.
Renwick’s hospital was located at the south end in order to make access difficult and enhance quarantine. In 1875 it became a center for the training of nurses until it closed permanently in the 1950s. It is the only ruin to be designated a New York City Landmark and, at some future date, it will be renovated and placed into service as the Park’s visitors center.
As you can see in the computer rendering (below), the Smallpox Hospital provides a wall that closes off and separates Southpoint Park from our final destination, Four Freedoms Park, and its continued presence was calibrated into Louis Kahn’s design of the Park.
|Roosevelt Island, NYC, Louis Kahn, Four Freedoms Park, Computer Rendering|
Louis Kahn’s design for Four Freedoms Park consists of seven elements. These are, as seen in the above rendering from bottom to top–in other words from the north to its culmination at the south tip of the Island:
(1) A row of five copper beech trees, south of and parallel to the south elevation of Renwick’s Smallpox Hospital ruin;
(2) A hundred-foot wide monumental, ceremonial staircase;
(3) A Garden, actually a trapezoidal lawn flanked by allées composed of 120 little-leaf linden trees;
(4) Paralleling these trees on the Island’s east and west edges, sloping riverside esplanades that converge (along with the tapering lawn) toward the next element;
(5) A triangular, tapering Forecourt (also flanked by trees);
(6) A large, granite niche, placed on axis, containing an oversize portrait head of President Roosevelt;
(7) The Room, a square space, open to the sky and defined by granite blocks weighing 36-ton and measuring 6′ high by 6′ wide by 12′ deep. The Room is completely open to its south, thus enabling unobstructed views of Manhattan, Queens and Brooklyn, the East River of course, and its extension to the Atlantic.
It is best to understand these elements as chapters in a spatial narrative, which, as in the most successful stories, inspires the recipient (or participant) to contemplate and interpret its significance at the narrative’s conclusion. The Room, in this case, is that conclusion.
|Roosevelt Island, NYC, Louis Kahn, Four Freedoms Park, Ceremonial Staircase|
The Ceremonial Staircase, at a height of twelve feet, conceals the final goal to the south until the participant reaches its top. Before then, only sky is visible. This phenomenon–an unobstructed view of the sky above–in itself is a rare experience in New York City. Thus, the participant in Kahn’s narrative is immediately alerted to something unusual in this urban experience.
|Roosevelt Island, NYC, Louis Kahn, Four Freedoms Park, Ceremonial Staircase, Handrail|
|Roosevelt Island, NYC, Louis Kahn, Four Freedoms Park, Ceremonial Staircase, Handrail|
Then, certain details alert one to the presence of higher design. To recall the oft-quoted words of Mies van der Rohe, Kahn’s near-contemporary, “God is in the details.” This railing is such a detail, a continuous bent and rolled section of stainless steel–simple, elegant, the only bit of ornament for this grand staircase, it curls into a scroll to help guide one up those austere twenty-four steps.
Yet, the railing may not even be Kahn’s. According to Belmont Freeman, the railing was “not part of the original design;” it was an addition to satisfy insurance carriers. But it certainly is in the spirit of Kahn, both because he was known for altering designs at the last moment and because it blends in so well. Most likely, it blends in so well because Romaldo Giurgola, who knew Kahn intimately and had taught with him, had been selected to carry the design to its realization soon after Kahn’s death.
|Roosevelt Island, NYC, Louis Kahn, Four Freedoms Park, Berm, Ceremonial Staircase (R), Sloping Riverside Esplanade (L)|
This photograph captures the Park’s monumentality and also shows one of the riverside esplanades that enable visitors to bypass the staircase (seen on the right).
|Roosevelt Island, NYC, Louis Kahn, Four Freedoms Park, The Garden, View to South|
The Garden slopes down and narrows to form a trapezoid, thus enhancing the drama of perspective recession. The allées of Linden trees also focus the visitor’s eye on that dark spot in the distance–the vanishing point of Kahn’s perspective construction which is also the granite niche containing the sculpted head of FDR.
|Roosevelt Island, NYC, Louis Kahn, Four Freedoms Park, Forecourt, View to South|
The Garden and the Riverside Esplanades merge here, in the Forecourt. Here, too, that granite niche and its portrait head, earlier a mere, distant spot serving as the vanishing point of Kahn’s composition, now loom large–a compelling magnet that draws us forward.
|Roosevelt Island, NYC, Louis Kahn, Four Freedoms Park, Granite Niche, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, 1933 by Jo Davidson|
Jo Davidson had been selected by FDR’s mother, Sara, to model a head of her son, and he was allowed to spend several days in the White House, following Roosevelt around, sketching the President and even modelling in the Oval Office.
This six-foot high bronze head is a copy made in 2010 of a life-sized head that Davidson had sculpted in clay in 1933. It is the only piece of sculpture in the entire Park. Davidson captures the fifty-one year old president with an unusual directness. Roosevelt appears pensive and thoughtful, but also alert. His head projects from its niche with authority, and yet, something about that left eye, in particular, can’t quite conceal his concern.
This is a beautiful portrait. Its placement serves as an author’s signature, or possibly a book cover; behind him, the back face of this granite niche displays the words of FDR’s “Four Freedoms.”
|Roosevelt Island, NYC, Louis Kahn, Four Freedoms Park, Forecourt showing rear of Granite Niche containing the text of the The Four Freedoms|
Roosevelt’s “four freedoms,” to which this park is dedicated, were the culminating words of his State of the Union Address in 1941, given at the beginning of his third term in office. He delivered it eleven months before the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. FDR’s Address warns the country of the dangers of untrustworthy aggressor nations, of the need for America to support its allies in various ways and to increase its armament production, and of the importance of maintaining a healthy democracy by meeting our social and economic problems head-on.
In conclusion, Roosevelt anticipates a new world order, an extension of that quiet and continuing “revolution” that has characterized American history since its beginnings. In this new order, free countries will work “together in a friendly, civilized society.”
Freedom is his key word, and in the penultimate sentence of his Address he defined it: “Freedom means the supremacy of human rights everywhere.” Earlier, he had broken it down into the Four Freedoms that we can read, chiseled into the back of the Park’s Granite Niche:
|Roosevelt Island, NYC, Louis Kahn, Four Freedoms Park, Plan|
|Roosevelt Island, NYC, Louis Kahn, Four Freedoms Park, The Room with view to U. N. Headquarters|
Having turned to read these inspiring words on the back of the Granite Niche, the visitor to Four Freedoms Park faces south once more and enters the seventh and last element in Kahn’s design narrative: The Room.
In the plan of the entire Park, shown above, The Room is that square element on the far left. It is a space of elemental simplicity, defined by six foot tall granite blocks, each weighing 36 tons. The granite blocks do not touch, but are placed one inch apart. They are wire-cut, and their outer surfaces are flame finished. However, the inside surfaces that create the one inch gaps are polished. Here again, to paraphrase Mies van der Rohe, God enters into a detail. One can look through these enormous blocks of stone and catch fragments of the skyline or the water; all the while, those polished, inside surfaces catch and seem to boost the light.
Therefore, even if the enormous scale of these granite blocks might call to mind the phrase, cyclopean masonry, which defined the lumbering, defensive citadels of the ancient Myceneans, the penetration of light through their inch separations actually makes The Room feel ethereal and light.
And then, of course, The Room is open to the south and to the sky above. It may be that Kahn actually had in mind a particular aspect of ancient architecture in this roofless room: the hypaethral opening of certain Greek decastyle temples and some Roman buildings, like Trajan’s Kiosk.
After all, the idea of a room had a special meaning for Louis Kahn. A room, in Kahn’s view, embodied the most ancient and earliest human attempts at architecture. Or, as he stated in a speech from 1971 (titled “The Room, the Street, and Human Agreement”): “the room is the beginning of architecture.”
|United Nations Headquarters, View from The Room; Secretariat (L), General Assembly (R)|
Kahn also reminded his audience in that 1971 speech that the room “is the place of the mind.” It is a place of contemplation and reflection, a place that helps to generate our best thinking.
And so, his spatial narrative brings us to this room–The Room— at the water’s edge. We see the U.N Headquarters off to the west, the East River flowing southward into the Atlantic Ocean. And we are reminded of Mayor John Lindsay’s prescient thoughts when he first proposed this memorial park in 1972: “It has long seemed to us that an ideal place for a memorial to FDR would be on Welfare Island, which…could be easily renamed in his honor… It would face the sea he loved, the Atlantic he bridged, the Europe he helped to save, the United Nations he inspired.”
|Roosevelt Island, NYC, Louis Kahn, Four Freedoms Park, The Garden, View to North, Linden Tree Allées|
Looking back up to the north, this photograph gives us a good view of the allées and The Garden. It should be noted that, even though Four Freedoms Park opened officially on October 17, 2012, just one week before Sandy became a hurricane and made landfall in Jamaica, not a single one of these Linden trees was destroyed.
How lucky for us all. Americans today need, more than ever, an opportunity to visit The Room and dwell on the fact that negative forces once more threaten the many freedoms that Franklin Delano Roosevelt won for Americans in the aftermath of his Presidency.
How ironic that we have lost our grasp today on some of the same specific issues that FDR brought up in his January 6, 1941 State of the Union Address, what he called the simple and “basic things expected by our people of their political and economic systems.” Among these are:
“Equality of opportunity …Jobs…Security…The ending of special privilege for the few…Civil liberties for all…fruits of scientific progress.”
As historian Harvey J. Kaye bemoans, Americans may have not forgotten the four freedoms, but they have “forgotten what it takes to realize them.”
If you visit the Park, know that it is closed on Tuesdays. It is open to the public from Wednesday to Monday, 9:00 AM to 7:00 PM.