Free Historic Sites Updated: A How-To Guide For Roosevelt Island


Roosevelt Island historic sites extend the island’s full length from FDR Four Freedoms State Park, across from the United Nations to the Lighthouse in Hell Gate. Locations are dynamic, and we update freely.

By David Stone

Roosevelt Island Daily News

Unlike most historic places, Roosevelt Island is multi-themed, top to bottom. Variety rules. And it starts with the original inspiration. A serene tribute to Franklin Delano Roosevelt.

FDR Four Freedoms Park

Celebrating the 19th Amendment on the steps at the park.

Overseen by an agile conservancy, FDR Four Freedoms Park manages to be current and historic at once. Currently on view, Shaun Leonardo’s stunning insight, Between Four Freedoms.

Built as one of the final pieces for a community named after the 32nd President, serenity completes 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.

Getting there…

At the southernmost point on Roosevelt Island, access FDR Four Freedoms Park by walking south from either the F Train Subway Station, the Roosevelt Island NYC Ferry Landing or from the also historic Roosevelt Island Tram. Arriving, look for signs pointing the way.

Board free Red Buses at either location. Get off at Southpoint Park and walk through Southpoint to the adjoining park’s entrance.


The Smallpox Hospital

Among many public institutions once 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.

The Smallpox Hospital is the only ruin designated by New York City as a landmark.

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 design every night.

Getting there…

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 F Train Subway Station. Or ride a free Red Bus to Southpoint.

Cornell Tech: The House

Of more current historic vintage: The House at Cornell Tech. When opened, it was the largest passive residence in the world. Students and teaching staff live here.
In perspective: View of the century old Queensboro Bridge and Midtown from The House.

Roosevelt Island Tram

The Roosevelt Island Tram opened in 1976. It was essential for the new community’s life, 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 cash rescue saved the Tram, allowing a nearly complete rebuild in 2010. By then, it had grown from temporary source to essential transportation.

Roosevelt Island Tram at work
The Tram lifts off for a four minute ride into Manhattan.

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.

Queensboro Bridge 1:00 P.M.

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’s historic Tram, gliding between towers and emerging to a vast cityscape, can be spectacular after dark.

In the Tram Plaza, check out the Roosevelt Island Historical Society Kiosk, a great resource for information, gifts and souvenirs. The kiosk once served as an entrance to the street car crossing the Queensboro Bridge, serving Roosevelt Island by elevator.

Roosevelt Island Historic Sites North of the Tram

Alice Childress plaque.

A literary giant, Alice Childress, lived her final years as a Roosevelt Island pioneer, co-founding 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.

Blackwell House

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 overseen by the Roosevelt Island Historical Society.

Chapel of the Good Shepherd

Renamed “Good Shepherd Community Center,” the historic Chapel of the Good Shepherd is often used for town hall style events, these days.

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 a 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.

The Octagon

The Octagon Tower, once the entrance to a lunatic asylum, is graceful under a full moon on a winter night. Newly built wings form a housing complex centered on Roosevelt Island history.

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.

Getting there…

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

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.

With the original tower restored, the surrounding park also gained The Girl Puzzle, a tribute to Nellie Bly by Amanda Matthews.

Roosevelt Island’s landmark Lighthouse guided ships where the Island juts into Hell Gate.

Designated as both a national and local landmark, the lighthouse anchors a tranquil park where Roosevelt Island divides the East River in Hell Gate.

Getting there…

Stroll up the West Promenade or from either of the last bus stops on Roosevelt Island for the final stop on our tour of Roosevelt Island historic sites.

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