The Roosevelt Island Historical Society (RIHS) has worked to preserve and communicate Island history since 1976. Our mission is to “recover, maintain, and disseminate the record of Roosevelt Island’s heritage from Colonial times to present… by collecting… media-recording the history of the Island and its inhabitants; by maintaining those collections and making them accessible to the public; [and] by conducting educational programs, including tours, lectures, exhibitions, and publications.”
I was surprised to see, in the last issue of The WIRE, a suggestion for turning Blackwell House into the Gracie Mansion or White House of Roosevelt Island as a way of attracting candidates for the RIOC presidency. For the past 17 years the RIHS has been trying to get the house restored and repaired so that it’s fit for community use.
In its current condition, the house is an eyesore: constantly neglected, cheaply fixed and poorly maintained. I cringe when I must explain its condition to visitors. What should be our pride and joy, a key part of Roosevelt Island’s history, has become a shameful site.
First, some history. When the Blackwell family owned the Island, Blackwell House was its summer residence. (The family lived year-round at what is now Vernon Blvd and 37th Avenue, in Long Island City.) After the City of New York bought the Island in the 1920s, various residents of City and Island institutions and their families occupied the house.
The Bauers were the last family to occupy Blackwell House. Herman Bauer, the director of City Hospital, lived there with his wife and five children during the 1950s. By that time, a wing had been added to the north side of the building to accommodate large families. The Bauers left Blackwell House when Herman became the director of Elmhurst General Hospital in Queens.
As part of the development of Roosevelt Island in the 1970s, Blackwell House was reconstructed and restored. At that time, the house had been abandoned for over 20 years. The reconstruction plan preserved the building as a family home, complete with bedrooms and an upstairs bath, rather than transforming it into a venue that could be used for community events.
From 1975 to 1992, Blackwell House hosted community events. It was fun to sit in a house with a living room and (non-operating) fireplace. RIHS used it for parties and meetings, and it was also rented out to families for special events. The house was “furnished” with donated antique pieces (which subsequently disappeared) and leftover model apartment furnishings. Roz Kane, the mother of an antiques collector, had her son donate many wonderful pieces to the house.
Then things took a turn for the worse. For a few years, Safe and Affordable Housing for Everyone (SAHE), RIOC’s predecessor, used the upper floor of Blackwell House as offices. The organization had little respect for the fragile building and damaged the house. Then, in 1992, a Roosevelt Island business rented the house and used it as offices. This proved to be a disastrous plan. Furniture disappeared, there was a dispute over rent, the basement flooded and trash was left to rot. After seven years, RIOC finally evicted the tenant. I was there when the locks were changed on Halloween night, 1999. The cost of evicting the tenants was over $200,000 in legal fees.
In the mid-2000s, the Blackwell House exterior was restored and the roof was replaced. While the restoration looked good from afar, the quality of the work was poor, due to inadequate supervision of the workers. As a result, the house now has many defects.
In 2008, RIOC Vice President Rosina Abramson developed a list of the repairs that Blackwell House needed. These included renovating the interior, constructing a new wheelchair-accessible ramp, and fixing the porches.
Since 2010, RIHS has been working with RIOC to get the work done. RIOC will contribute over $1,000,000 to the project, while the NYC Department of Cultural Affairs will provide $365,000. Our plan is for the main floor to be used for public meetings. In 2011, the RIHS signed an agreement to maintain archives and a research area on the upper floor. We’re working to ensure that a qualified contractor does the work. We’re also insisting on independent oversight for the project. RIHS has requested the construction of a caretaker apartment in the building (the NYC Parks Department has used this strategy in other locations to fend off vandalism and neglect.) To date, this idea has been ignored, and the maintenance will be left to RIOC staff.
Blackwell House has suffered greatly. Although there have been some repairs, it has been an effort to get other problems (broken windows, plumbing issues) addressed. Clearly, it is not ready for the occupancy of a new RIOC president or to host Roosevelt Island community events. RIHS hopes we can finally move forward in restoring this Roosevelt Island treasure.
We at RIHS work hard for Island preservation, and we need your help. Stop by the kiosk in Tramway Plaza and get acquainted. You can become a member of the Historical Society for $40 a year, and your membership will help us with projects such as the restoration of Blackwell House. The kiosk is open Wednesday through Monday from 11:00 a.m. to 4:00 p.m. For more information and membership opportunities, go to http://rihs.us.