About Roosevelt Island

Why Is Blackwell House Being Left To Waste?

Updated 1 year ago Peter McCarthy
Blackwell House On A Quiet Summer Evening (Still Vacant)
Blackwell House On A Quiet Summer Evening (Still Vacant)
© David Stone for the Roosevelt Island Daily

In a Roosevelt Islander blog post, Publisher Rick O'Conor asked, "... at what point will the condition of Blackwell House be such that it can be used for some purpose other than just staring at it?" It was a good question, posed in April, 2011. Five years have passed without an answer.

What makes O'Conor's question as troubling as it is relevant today is that the article it preceded described an agreement reached between the Roosevelt Island Operating Corporation, owners of the property, and the Roosevelt Island Historical Society, that would reopen the historic building after years of disuse.

(Read an entertaining history of the building by clicking here.)

"During the April 6, 2011, Roosevelt Island Operating Corp (RIOC) Board of Directors Meeting, a resolution was passed which will permit the Roosevelt Island Historical Society (RIHS) to use and produce public programming at Blackwell House," O'Conor reported.

What happened? Not much, it appears, although the agreement has been in place for five years.

A Blackwell House Perspective

What makes the lack of progress in getting the Blackwell House reopened is that it has potential for being a boost to our ailing Main Street business corridor. The building is an historical treasure that, properly managed, could draw tourists and be a pivot for directing foot traffic down main street to shops and restaurants.

While implementation different than what has been proposed – and not executed – by the historical society would need to be put in place, a further obstacle is the flood of attention being directed to another, less viable landmark, the badly deteriorated and historically insignificant Smallpox Hospital.

The ruins of a building only partly architected by James Renwick lies far away from the community's center and, if promoted as proposed as a cafe, a museum or just a stabilized ruin, would divert visitors southward out of town, adding to the pull of already existing and internationally important locations at Cornell Tech and FDR Four Freedoms Park.

It's hard not to see Main Street being neglected again with a valuable asset set aside by the the organization that should be helping it.

Allowing Blackwell House to remain unopened is sad, but it's proposed use as little more than a storage shed and clubhouse for the Historical Society, which was agreed to in other words, threatens to impact it negatively for decades.

The Roosevelt Island Historical Society's Plan

According to what was proposed and agreed to in 2011, this is what would become of this important landmark:

Use of the Following Areas Within Blackwell House:

  • Attic: Storage Space (470 sq. ‘) – This space used to store archives (documents and photos for public (general public, historians and students) to review. 
  • Second Floor: Small Office- (232 sq.’) – planning events and historical research space to review archives. The public to make appointment through curator, RIHS. 
  • First Floor: Closet/Information Booth (15 sq.’)

Additional use of 1st Floor Public Meeting Room for the following dates, subject to availability deemed by RIOC;

  • RIHS Board Meetings: - Every 3rd Thursday (6:30 – 8:30) January through November - Every 2nd Thursday (6:00 – 9:00) December
  • Public Exhibitions: - (1st Floor Corridor) – Every January, May & September starting the 1st week and to remain on display for at least 3 weeks.
  •  Special Lecture Series: - Every April for 4 consecutive Tuesday evenings (6:00 – 9:00) 
  •  Fundraising: - Every May the 2nd Sunday of the month

Nothing there to brighten the spirits of a business owner struggling on Main Street.

Pick that apart and you see virtually no use for anything of general community interest or that serves as a way of attracting visitors to the larger community, walking tours, four example.

More significant is the absence of reference to the Chapel of the Good Shepherd, the Octagon or Lighthouse Park, all high profile historic landmarks of much greater interest than the crumbling ruins taking up excess park space to the south.

So, here's the deal. RIOC would turn over the attic for the Historical Society to offload their excess storage without limitation, the second floor to an office for sorting through the attic storage and for planning events. And the events? Exactly seven taking up all of 67 days per year. 

Once a month, the first floor would be given up to RIHS Board Meetings.

Judith Berdy, leader of the Historical Society, has done mountains of useful work for Roosevelt Island, especially as it relates to keeping our history alive. She is incredibly well-informed, writes and lectures with impressive conviction. But that should not result in virtual ownership of Blackwell House and controlling the role it needs to play to bring our community focus into balance. 

RIHS Defense

Although almost no progress has been made toward reopening Blackwell House in the five years since RIHS reached agreement with RIOC, President Berdy rose up in defense of the Society's proprietary hold on the property in April of this year.

In a "Community Column" in the Main Street WIRE, Berdy jumped into criticize  a proposal by Roosevelt Island's elder statesman, David Bauer, who proposed Blackwell House as a sort of local Gracie Mansion, a residence for future RIOC President who, following a recently passed law, would be required to live in the community. 

But her complaint was nothing more than that, since nothing much has been done to reopen Blackwell House, it's not ready to be occupied.

"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," Berdy wrote.

In 2011... If I used all the fingers on my right hand, I count five years without significant progress.

It's time to reconsider the agreement. It was probably a mistake in the first place.


Berdy has previous wrote that our opinions at the Daily are "worthless" and that we should "cease and desist" from commenting about historical issues on Roosevelt Island, and it's fair to assume she will again. But RIHS approval is not one of the criteria for publishing here.

Our interest is in stimulating community discussion in a meaningful way. The conversations have been locked in one direction for too long. 

So, although we are not opposed to the Historical Society's primary involvement, we suggest it would be better for the community if a more inclusive plan were put in place.

  • Any approved plan must include provisions for blending the Main Street commercial district's concerns in with the Society's. Our businesses need help. Stalling visitors at Blackwell House with no in place process for encouraging them to walk farther north is not a viable plan for the Island as a whole.
  • Our other historic landmarks must be brought into the picture. RIOC has spent a lot of money refurbishing the Chapel of the Good Shepherd and turning it into an absolute gem, lovely to look at and a pleasure to be inside. The Octagon's developers did a masterful job of preserving what was left of this important structure, and it's a gift to the community. It needs to be recognized. And no historical plan going forward must include the Lighthouse and the graceful park that surrounds it. Standing above the turbulent waters of Hell Gate and the cove into which it releases its pent up energies tells a story that few other places can. Keep it in the plan. Isolating community elements creates extra cost and fails to utilize community dynamics.
  • For its part, RIOC ought to finally do something about signage directing visitors to local attractions, a sentiment shared by Hudson Related's David Kramer. When I mentioned this casually to local activist Christina Delfico, she remarked that "Sherie Helstien has been trying to get them to do that for ten years." I found that remarkable, since I didn't believe anyone could resist Helstien for that long. That aside and hoping for Helstien's input, wouldn't it be great to see signs near both the Tram and the Subway that help visitors find their way, not just to historic sites, but to restaurants and our extraordinarily under-appreciated promenade with its unobstructed views of Manhattan from such quiet and comfortable venues?

Let's think again on Blackwell House and find a way to make it more of a community resource than the virtual private property of a single organization with little community outreach. 

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