How RIOC Bungled Blackwell House Into Next To Nothing Special

How RIOC Bungled Blackwell House Into Next To Nothing Special

Blackwell House, shuttered for twenty years, reopened mid-pandemic. After millions spent on restoration, the historic farmhouse welcomed visitors. But then, tone deaf as always, RIOC reinvented it… as next to nothing special.

By David Stone

The Roosevelt Island Daily News

Blackwell House, Seen at a Distance From the Internet

The rebuilt front porch is as ghostly and the Main Street facade, devoid of signs of welcome.

You get a flavor of RIOC’s general disregard for this “charming wooden home” from reading its web page. A study in minimalism, the “Just the facts, maam,” approach feels designed for keeping visitors away.

No lures, only scant historic details. But “Visitors are only permitted on the first floor of Blackwell House and encouraged not to linger” sets a standoffish tone.

“…only permitted…” is a grammatical miscue well-suited for high school English. Not important, but telling in how much carelessness gets squeezed into so few sentences. For an alleged Communications Team ringing up hundreds of thousands each year in payroll.

By contrast, a history written by the Roosevelt Island Historical Society comes alive with rich, human details. They actually spur your interest in coming for a visit, something RIOC deflects.

What about when the owner sold his wife…?

Did you know that the last Dutch owner of what was, then, Hog Island was “banished from the province for ‘selling his wife into immoral slavery and for gross immoralities committed by himself…?’”

RIHS does, along with other down to earth details from history.

Among other glaring missteps, RIOC’s deflating website fails to add any how-to information. Like, how do you find the place? What else is nearby? And are there restaurants in walking distance?

The address: “At the corner of East Road and Main Street…” is meaningless for anyone not already living here and, really, for many of them.

Blackwell House on a summer morning.
Nestled among trees, the Main Street facade of Blackwell House does nothing about welcoming visitors. Not so much is a flag or pennant. Is that because, after millions spent on restoration, RIOC set it aside as inappropriate office space?

In a state of disrepair, followed by neglect, the 17th Century farmhouse, witness to history, sat idle for twenty years. But steady pressure from historian Judith Berdy finally got a rebuild underway.

Cost overruns in the hundreds of thousands ensued, much of it from flawed or non-existent work paid for but found lacking. The main cause was RIOC failures in oversight, but Roosevelt Islanders paid for it all over again.

Finally, in November, 2020, the pandemic raging, RIOC staged a restricted opening.

Left to right: RIOC president/CEO Shelton J. Haynes, NYS assembly member Rebecca Seawright, NYS senator José Serrano, Lynne Strong Shinozaki (in period costume), city council member Ben Kallos, and former council member Jessica Lappin. Lappin helped fund the restoration. Was Haynes already dreaming of violating values and mission by seizing the historic site as office space? Photo credit: the Roosevelt Island Historical Society.

As the Pandemic Slowly Lifted

By the time public sites reopened in June, many reasonably expected a Blackwell House alive with visitors. But that didn’t happen.

Partly because, also during the pandemic, the state agency declared its external communications restricted to “marketing” and “branding.” Observers worry that a powerful insider took one too many college courses and decided on putting her learning to good use.

Roosevelt Island, it seemed, is more Old Navy than community to RIOC’s brain trust.

Mainly in charge is an alleged Communications Team and its Clueless Division. These deep thinkers show no interest in “marketing” or “branding” Roosevelt Island’s rich trove of historic sites.

That all of them, not just abuses with Blackwell House.

The Special Case of Blackwell House

Early this spring, RIOC started moving out of its longtime free home at 591 Main Street. But the move, inexplicably, sent them into space they knew as too small. And that meant seizing other spaces and using them in ways for which they were never intended.

The Cultural Center, for example, lost space to storage dumps, but nothing was worse than Haynes’s taking over Blackwell House. Although unsuitable and not ADA compliant, it’s now his office.

No wonder encouraging visitors never started.

If you’re lucky enough to catch him rushing between his office and his private parking lot, you might ask him, “Why?”

But don’t expect an answer unless the alleged Communications Team’s on hand and tells him what he thinks.

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