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Touring Roosevelt Island – 2011 DOCOMOMO Tour Day recap

November 21, 2011

On Sunday October 9, a capacity group of 54 participants enjoyed New York/Tri-State’s contribution to the DOCOMOMO US 2011 Tour Day, an examination of Roosevelt Island. This sliver of land in New York’s East River was identified in 1969 as the location for an unprecedented “new town in town”—the most ambitious effort of the New York State Urban Development Corporation.

The first stage of Roosevelt Island construction, taking place from 1974 to 1977, housed about 5,000 residents and a variety of services. It was based on a master plan by Philip Johnson and John Burgee, which laid out Main Street as the spine of the community. On either side of the street, residential complexes designed by Johansen & Bhavnani and by Sert, Jackson & Associates rose to heights of up to 22 stories, stepping down toward the water on either side. Reflecting urban design concepts of the period, retail spaces lined the street, and a central plaza was created around a 19th-century chapel restored as a community meeting place.

Originally planned to be free of cars, with an electric bus system, the development included a prominent concrete-framed garage designed by Kallman & McKinnell to hold residents’ cars at the end of the sole vehicular bridge, connecting the island to Queens. An aerial tram built in the mid-1970 offers a distinctive form of public transportation to Manhattan. Stations were designed by Prentice & Chan Ohlhausen, which also designed the island’s sports complex. Another unprecedented feature is the pneumatic trash collection system, installed in 1975 as construction commenced, which delivers refuse to a central collection station with no need for garbage trucks.

More recent construction, departing from the bold original scheme, has increased Roosevelt Island’s population to about 12,000, making possible a greater range of services for its residents. Louis Kahn’s 1974 proposal for a memorial to Franklin Delano Roosevelt is only now being constructed at the south tip of the island.

Among those briefing tour participants were: Theodore Liebman, who was UDC’s Chief of Architecture during the initial construction period; Lo-Yi Chan, architect of the tram stations and sports complex; Ashok Bhavnani, architect of much of the original residential construction, and Marianne Russem, board member of the cooperative designed by Johansen & Bhavnani, who discussed maintenance of and improvements to the building she has enjoyed for decades.—John Morris Dixon

Stay tuned for future tour opportunities when the FDR memorial park opens next year. Or just hop the tram and make your own walking tour of the “new town in town.” Maps are available at the visitor center near the tram station (Thursday-Sunday, noon-5:00pm).

Top: Façade, Roosevelt Landing, originally known as Eastwood; middle: Marianne Russem and John Morris Dixon talk with tour participants on the plaza of Rivercross cooperative (Johansen & Bhavnani, 1975); bottom: Tour participants explore Roosevelt Landing complex designed by Sert, Jackson & Associates, 1976.