Roosevelt Island is under development. South of the Tram, an entire college campus – including hotel and executive center – is underway and Sportspark is being renovated. Even within the last few weeks, a beloved ice cream store has closed, an urgent care center has opened, and a new restaurant has been announced.
In the midst of all this change, one thing has remained the same – an unassuming farmhouse sitting empty at the roundabout that directs traffic to Main Street. After staying vacant for 17 years, the renovations of Blackwell House are underway. The question is, which way?
Built between 1696 and 1804 for James Blackwell, the Blackwell House is the oldest structure on the Island and the sixth oldest farmhouse in New York City. It is also the sole surviving building from the period when Roosevelt Island was privately owned.
The Blackwell family owned the Island from the early 1700s until 1828, when it was sold to New York City. Mary Manning Blackwell was the stepdaughter of the Island’s first “owner,” British captain and sheriff John Manning, who gained control of it (depending on the account, via a grant or seizure) in 1668. The deed was passed to Mary and her husband Robert Blackwell in the early 1700s.
After acquiring the Island in 1828, the City used it to operate a prison, lunatic asylum, and multiple hospitals. Blackwell House was used as the residence for institutional administrators from 1829-1955. Its last residents were the Bauer family – City Hospital Director Herman Bauer, his wife, and their five children. The house was abandoned in 1955 when Bauer and his family moved to Queens.
According to a report from the Landmarks Preservation Commission, by the late 1960s, Blackwell House “was in an advanced state of decay… its only hope for survival being complete restoration.” Historian Loring McMillen and architectural historian Henry-Russell Hitchcock surveyed the House in 1969 and deemed it worthy of restoration. It was added to the National Register of Historic Places in February 1972.
In 1973, New York architect Giorgio Cavaglieri completed restoration of the two-story main building, one-story kitchen wing (added soon after the completion of the main building), and the front porch. Cavaglieri also added an entrance to the root cellar at the northeast corner of the building and removed a larger wing on the north side of the building. Cavaglieri preserved it as a house, and the interior was decorated with donated antiques.
The property was officially landmarked on November 25, 1975.
From 1975 to 1992, the Blackwell House hosted community events including parties and meetings held by the Roosevelt Island Historical Society (RIHS), as well as private functions.
Safe and Affordable Housing for Everyone (SAHE), the organization responsible for the redevelopment of Roosevelt Island from 1981 until 1984, used the second floor for offices for a short period of time. In 1992, an architectural/design firm took over the House and used it for offices. This tenant was evicted for unpaid rent on October 31, 1999, leaving the House once again vacant.
Today, responsibility for the House falls to the Roosevelt Island Operating Corporation (RIOC), which was officially given “the responsibility for the operation, maintenance, and development of Roosevelt Island” in 1985.
RIOC completed an exterior renovation of the Blackwell House in 2008 at a cost of nearly $1.2 million. Over the course of the next few years, plans for an interior renovation progressed slowly. RIOC contracted with Saratoga Associates in 2011 and in 2013 Nelson & Pope Engineers and Surveyors posted plans for mechanical, electrical, and plumbing improvements to the House as part of a project to renovate the landmarked property and convert it from a residence to a community center “for public meetings and display of pieces and documents relevant to Roosevelt Island’s history.”
Nelson & Pope’s proposed work included new HVAC, sanitary and gas plumbing systems, as well as new electrical systems, lighting, a fire alarm, and an automatic fire suppression system. By 2014, renovation efforts had been delayed long enough that RIOC was required to refile its now-expired construction permits and amend its contract with Saratoga Associates. However, it now appears that renovation efforts are ready to move forward again.
According to RIOC President Susan Rosenthal, a $1.4 million funding agreement has been signed, and permit applications are being filed this week or next. After that, says Rosenthal, “We get comments from the Department of Buildings (DOB) until we agree on actual plans. When they’re finalized, we go out with a Request for Proposals. According to my engineer, the plans will be filed this week or next week. The construction bid takes six to eight weeks, and construction takes six months.”
Approximately $1 million of the renovation price tag will come from RIOC. Another third of the money for the renovation ($364,000) will come from the New York City Department of Cultural Affairs, with the stipulation that the House will be used for public viewing and community programming for 20 years after the completion of the renovation. The first floor will be public space, and will be made ADA accessible.
Because the money is capital funding, it has to pass through a not-for-profit instead of going directly through RIOC. This not-for-profit is the Roosevelt Island Historical Society (RIHS). RIHS President Judy Berdy said RIHS had “no power to get the project moving any faster” and that the process of contracts, negotiations, and bids lies entirely with RIOC.
For Residents or Residence?
The current plan for Blackwell House allows for mixed use. According to the RIOC website, once renovations are complete, “Blackwell House will be used as a community center, mainly for local committee meetings and periodic historical tours.”
At an April 6, 2011, Board of Directors meeting, RIOC passed a resolution to permit RIHS to use Blackwell House for public programming, as well as for the storage of its archives, for five years after the date of occupancy. According to Berdy, RIHS “will not own any part of the house and all areas that are ADA compliant will be open for use by the public during that time and thereafter.”
The 2011 RIOC proposal allowed for the use of all three floors of the House, with a “closet/information booth” on the first floor, a small office for “planning events and historical research space to review archives” on the second floor, and storage space in the attic for archives. Berdy points out, however, that RIHS has not seen the revised plans being submitted to the DOB.
No matter its occupant, the House will need to be cared for post-renovation to ensure it doesn’t fall into disrepair once again. RIHS has requested the construction of a caretaker apartment on the second floor, as the New York Parks Department often does through its Historic House Trust.
The caretaker would become responsible for maintaining the interior of the House, while RIOC would continue to renovate the exterior as needed. Berdy says having a live-in caretaker could protect the House from vandalism and make it so problems are noticed sooner, possibly preventing situations like the emergency repairs to the sprinkler system in June 2016, which cost over $19,000.
Berdy says, “we want to protect the House, not just fix stuff up without maintaining it so it just goes downhill all over again.”