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Chronicles: The Insane of Blackwell’s Island

Blackwell's Island Insane Asylum Octagon, 1970s

Blackwell's Island Insane Asylum Octagon, 1970s

New York City holds many secrets and for many years, those secrets were held on Blackwell’s Island, now known as Roosevelt Island. Receiving little more than a footnote in the pages of history, the N.Y.C Insane A.B.C (New York City Insane Asylum Blackwell’s Island) built in 1834, was a weekly news item for the years the facility was open, from stories of its abuses to celebrity-like gossip about its most famous, and most deranged, inmates. In 1842, Charles Dickens visited the hospital and made mention of it in his American Notes:

”Everything had a lounging, listless, madhouse air, which was very painful. The moping idiot, cowering down with long disheveled hair; the gibbering maniac, with his hideous laugh and pointed finger; the vacant eye, the fierce wild face, the gloomy picking of the hands and lips, and munching of the nails: there they were all, without disguise, in naked ugliness and horror.”

450px-The-octagon-roosevelt-islandUnlike the Smallpox Hospital at the opposite end of the island, all that remains of the Insane Asylum, which was designed by famed architect Alexander Jackson Davis, is The Octagon. The Octagon originally served as the main entrance to the Asylum, which opened in 1841. The rotunda is made of blue-gray stone, quarried on the island. The dome on the building was not in the original plans by Davis four years later, much to the architect’s dismay, to make the structure seem less dismal. Sometime after the 1970s, this dome collapsed but in 2006, was rebuilt when the land was bought by a developer to build high-rise, luxury apartments (whose website suspiciously leaves out that the rotunda was part of an asylum). The structure also originally contained two wings which spread out from the dome but those were knocked down in the 1960s.
The Octagon
888 Main Street, Roosevelt Island, New York

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