2018-01-03 / Features

The Roosevelt Island Historical Society Is Rich With Archival Material

By Jason D. Antos

Visitors to the Roosevelt Island Historical Society will be able to view maps created centuries ago and covering more than a 350-year period of changes in the island’s topography and the different roles that its has served.

The maps carefully detail the transformation from private Dutch colonial holding to the site of social welfare institutions operating from the mid-19th century until the 1930's.

The exhibition which, featured eight maps, including a copy of a map dated 1656, was organized by the Roosevelt Island Historical Society, and curated by President Judith Berdy and Brian Blazak and were on display at The Octagon Gallery, 888 Main St. on Roosevelt Island.
The richly detailed maps also showed the development of nearby Long Island City along Vernon Boulevard, formerly Vernon Avenue.

Observers saw the Western Queens landscape dotted with farms and palatial estates as seen in one map of Ravenswood. As the chronology of the maps progress, so does the development of the area with farms and private mansions giving way to the modern industrial landscape of today.What was interesting to see were the names of prominent Queens families and the plots of land they owned.One such estate was Bodine Castle, located west of Vernon Boulevard. The Gothic Revival mansion stood for more than a century. The home owner, John Bodine, was prosperous in dry goods and banking.Perhaps the most interesting map on display was the Welfare Island General Survey done by the Works Progress Administration in 1937 detailing every structure and institution on Roosevelt Island at the time.

All maps were culled from the archives of the Roosevelt Island Historical Society and have been collected for the last 20 years by Berdy.

“The Octagon Gallery is an ideal space to exhibit the WPA map. It gives a true vision of what Welfare Island was like when it was fully functioning with medical institutions," she said.

It was first purchased by Dutch Governor Wouter Van Twiller first purchased the island, then known as Hog Island from the Canarsie tribe of Native Americans. After the English conquest the land becomes known as Manning's Island. His son-in-law, Robert Blackwell, becomes the island's new owner and namesake Blackwell's Island. The island was temporarily named Welfare Island from 1921 until 1973.

The maps on available include.

•Map of New Netherlands With a view of New Amsterdam (1656).

•Map of Newtown, Long Island Compiled by John J. Riker, Jr. (1852).

•Johnson’s New York & Brooklyn Published by A.J. Johnson, New York (1866).

•Ravenswood Part of Long Island City Queens County, Long Island (1873).

•East River Tallman Island to Queensboro Bridge, US Geodetic Survey (1937).

•Welfare Island General Survey Department of Hospitals WPA Work Program (1937) (13 panels, totaling 31 feet in length).

•Welfare Island Plot Plan City of New York (Department of Hospitals) 1967.

•Roosevelt Island Historical Society Visitor Map & Guide (2010 © David Cain and RIHS).

The exhibition is in The Octagon Gallery, is located at 888 Main Street and is open daily from 9:00 a.m. To 9:00 p.m.

"The maps bring to life the history when you can pinpoint where a structure was. The maps from the 20th century, i.e.: 1937 and 1966 show how many buildings stood on the island. People thought the island was sparsely populated when it was not," Berdy continued. "We estimate that there were 7,000 to 9,000 residents  here in the 1940's."

Appointments can be made to visit the Roosevelt Island Historical Society archives by sending an e-mail to rooseveltislandhistory@usa.com

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