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An Autobiography: Chapter 32, Roosevelt Island, New York

Georgianna and I had a long love affair with New York City … the theatres, Radio City Music Hall, Times Square, the Stage Door Deli, museums, excitement at every corner! One of our favorite records was Gordon Jenkins’ masterful “Manhattan Tower,” the first concept album ever written, essentially a Broadway play on record. I took my first subway ride to Brooklyn, and there tasted my first pizza. But we never thought of living there … that is, until 1975, when our daughter Heather was encouraged to go to New York to further her ballet training.

Manhattan Tower 

Since the age of five, Heather had studied ballet and had become a beautiful and talented dancer with the Denver Civic Ballet. But in Denver, that was about as far as a ballet dancer could go. She had taken an advanced summer course in Saratoga Springs, New York, and when Robert Joffrey, founder of the world renowned Joffrey Ballet, saw her dance in Denver, he invited her to join his invitation-only summer class in Galveston, Texas.

We took Heather to Galveston, rented a trailer near the Gulf, and Georgianna and I had a nice three-week vacation while little Heather danced every day, to the point of exhaustion. The local newspaper featured a full-page spread on the class, and Heather was pictured, perspiring with a towel around her neck, her head bowed, holding on to the ballet barre.

It was there that Joffrey talked to Georgianna and said, “If Heather is serious about a ballet career, she must go to New York.” We wanted to give Heather every opportunity, so plans were made for the move to the Big Apple, where a whole new world opened to us.

We had just built a beautiful new home in Littleton, Colorado, and in the fall of 1975, I went off to New York to explore living arrangements. I read the want ads, had a real estate agent show me some apartments, and was completely discouraged. Then I saw a showroom near St. Patrick’s Cathedral with a sign that read: “Roosevelt Island: Manhattan’s Other Island.” I went inside, and there was an impressive model of this “new city” located on the East River, just minutes from Manhattan’s fashionable East side.

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Roosevelt Island 

They showed me plans for a four-bedroom apartment overlooking the Chapel Plaza on one side, and from the 2nd floor a view of the East River and Manhattan. The living room was large, with steps leading upstairs, and it would accommodate our Baldwin Baby Grand piano. The rental was $775 a month.

I asked about the tramway that was hanging from a wire over the model of the Island, and I was told that it would be completed soon and would be the only commuter aerial tramway in North America. When completed, each cabin had a capacity of up to 110 people and made approximately 115 trips per day. The tram moved at about 17.9 mph and traveled 3,100 feet in 3 minutes. At its peak, it climbed to 250 feet above the East River, providing views of the East Side of midtown Manhattan.

Tramway in Sky 

I was thoroughly intrigued, and as I studied the model and listened to the sales lady, a gentleman introduced himself and said he was a resident of Roosevelt Island. I only remember his first name, Marvin. I told him my story, and he insisted I visit the Island and check it out. He put me in a cab, and two hours later I was ready to sign a lease on the four-bedroom apartment. When we moved from the Island back to Colorado, I gave Marvin my Post Office Box - #1.

The cab ride to Roosevelt Island took me over the Queensborough Bridge, which went above the Island into Queens and then across a small bridge onto the Island. The cab stopped in front of a new apartment building on Main Street. Everything was clean and new, and a short walk led me to a beautiful old Gothic church sitting in the middle of a brick-paved plaza. This was the Chapel of the Good Shepherd, and Albert Schweitzer would have loved it because it served all the religious denominations on the Island.

A registered landmark building designed by Frederick Clark Withers, the Chapel was donated to the Episcopal Mission Society by George Bliss in 1889. Its restoration for use as a community-ecumentical center was completed in 1975.

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Chapel of the Good Shepherd 

I entered the Chapel and heard voices coming from downstairs, where I found a group of people. An attractive lady saw me and introduced herself as the general manager and resident coordinator of the Island. Her name was Mary Enright, and she became my dearest friend.

I told her we were moving from Colorado, and as we walked outside she pointed to an apartment complex nearby and the apartment I had described. She said it was a premium apartment and one of the best locations on the Island. She told me there were not many families living there yet – not many more than 200, and some of these people were professionals who worked in Manhattan and many were in the arts.

I walked around the Island. I saw a restored 18th century farmhouse, the Blackwell House, beautiful park areas, and at the southern end of the Island I discovered Goldwater Hospital, which would play an important part in our theatre activities on the Island.

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The Blackwell House. 

The only thing I knew about the Island was the 1939 film, Blackwell’s Island, (named in 1686) starring John Garfield. The New York Prison was erected on the Island in 1832, and the film was a fictionalized version of events at the prison. New York banned the film because “it didn’t depict conditions on the Island truthfully.” The censorship was later retracted. I have an original lobby card of the film on my office wall.

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Blackwell’s Island was renamed Welfare Island in 1921, and became Roosevelt Island, part of the Borough of Manhattan, in 1973. The Island is about two miles long, with a maximum width of about 800 feet. And its mailing address is New York City. Though small, Roosevelt Island has a distinguished architectural history, notably the Chapel of the Good Shepherd; the Smallpox Hospital; the Strecker Memorial Laboratory; the 50-foot Lighthouse on the Northern end of the Island; and the Octagon Tower/Insane Asylum.

The Smallpox Hospital, an imposing Gothic Revival structure designed by James Renwick, Jr., was first opened for public inspection on December 18, 1856. The Smallpox Hospital accommodated 100 patients, with charity cases in wards on the lower floors and a series of private rooms on the upper floors for paying patients.

In the course of the 20th century, many of the institutional buildings on the Island became inadequate and obsolete. The building remains an uninhabitable ruin with all the romance which any great work of architecture retains as long as its general outlines can be discerned, evoking memories of its past. I had the pleasure of exploring the ruins one beautiful day and put the presence out of my mind.

James Renwick, Jr. (1818-1895) was one of New York's most fashionable and successful architects. He designed many buildings in New York City – among them three which are now designated New York City Landmarks; Grace Church, St. Patrick's Cathedral, and the William E. Doge Villa (now the Greyston Conference Center in the Bronx). These three, like the Smallpox Hospital, are in the Gothic Revival style, which Renwick favored in the early years of his career. He also designed the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C.

 The Smallpox Hospital could easily become the American equivalent of the great Gothic ruins of England, such as the late 13th century Tintern Abbey in Monmouthshire, which has been admired and cherished since the 18th century as a romantic ruin, romantic mood ... a palpable documentation of a period in the past ... something which recalls a specific concept of architectural space and proportion.

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Ruins of the Smallpox Hospital. 

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