Back in the day, a trip to Roosevelt Island – then known as Blackwells Island – meant that your life had taken a bad turn: You were on your way to the Blackwell Penitentiary, the New York Lunatic Asylum, the almshouse (poor) or the copper hospital. It was in the 1800s when New York City began buying islands around Manhattan to house rehab institutions. If you were imprisoned, you were at least in good company – prisoner included performer Mae West, singer Billie Holliday and corrupt politician “Boss” Tweed. The insane asylum had its own celebrity in the house (without them knowing it), 23-year-old reporter Nellie Bly, who went undercover as a patient in 1887 and wrote an explosive exposure to New York World, “Ten days in a madhouse.”
Roosevelt Island today is softer than crazy. On a recent Saturday, people practiced yoga in the park, drove Citibikes around the 2-mile-long island, picnicked along the East River and bought baby eggplants at the farmers market. Some types with backpacks on their way to school on Cornell Tech’s campus, opened in 2017. And a few of us checked into Roosevelt Island’s only hotel — the only hotel in the island’s history, we get to know — Graduate Roosevelt Island. The hotel opened in June, followed by the restaurant and rooftop terrace in July.
Yes, it took us two sections to get to the hotel, but the island’s past is what drew us to this place. When you see the island from e.g. Long Island City or in the middle of Manhattan, one might wonder: What’s going on over there? And why go? In addition to guests affiliated with Cornell Tech: “We get people from the city who want to get away from the noise and bustle and just relax,” the buddy told the front desk.
Maybe they come for the views. The 224-room, 18-story hotel — the first Graduate property in New York City and the 29th overall — offers a stunning view of the East River and the Manhattan skyline on one side and Queens (including Long Island City’s iconic Pepsi-Cola characters) on the other. And the price is right; rooms start at $ 219 per room. night. It’s lower than average unless you’re talking about a micro hotel in Times Square.
On land, at sea or in the air
Granted, if you want to be in the heart of the action, this location will not interrupt it. And if this is your first time in town, definitely choose a more rolling neighborhood. But if you want a quiet night in residential environments – no sirens, no hectic nightclubs – this is a great option. Manhattan is minutes away by F Train (subway), Roosevelt Island Tramway gondola (it lands on 59th Street and Second Avenue) or NYC Ferry, with stops including Long Island City, Queens; East 34th Street (Midtown East); Brooklyn Navy Yard; and Pier 11 / Wall Street. We took the ferry just for fun, and for $ 2.75 each way, it was a bargain compared to sightseeing cruises. The island can be reached by car, and to avoid expensive hotel service fees, you can park at Motorgate Parkeringsgarage or try your luck with metered street parking.
We loved our view of the Manhattan skyline, especially at night (tip: Ask for a room on the 10th floor or above) and liked the hotel’s playful but homely feel. Roosevelt Island is home to lots of young families with dogs, we noticed as we walked along the shady river bridge. There’s even a branch of the New York Public Library here.
As you enter Graduate Roosevelt, you are greeted by a 12-foot “Flyboy” sculpture, created by artist Hebru Brantley, crouching next to the front desk. If you are a book lover, you will appreciate the great design element of the lobby: 5,000 linear feet of textbooks. Persian-inspired rugs, mid-century light fixtures and pops of Cornell’s signature red hue add playful style. A gallery wall contains portraits of prominent figures in the history of Roosevelt Island, including Nellie Bly and Mae West. Interiors were primarily performed by Graduate Hotel’s in-house team. Room keys replicate student IDs from famous Cornell University alumni, as did Toni Morrison (she received a master’s degree in literature in 1955).
Guestroom decor has grayscale and collegiate plaid; lamps have the Cornell battle song in Morse code etched in the base, and the art contains marked thermal assignments. Bedside tables look like filing cabinets. The bathroom wallpaper repeats the Flyboy motif in black and white (along with captive mug shots). Toiletries are by Malin + Goetz.
The best place in the house is without a doubt the Panorama Room, the bar and lounge with 168 seats, designed by Parts and Labor Design. With indoor seating and an outdoor stand-up zone, this is a great place to sip a cocktail (the bar menu was not yet available during our visit) and admire the city from this tall perch on the 18th floor.
On the ground floor, Anything At All, run by chef Megan Brown, offers breakfast, lunch, barbid and dinner. The dinner menu is short and vegetable forward. The biggest hit with our group was an appetizer of grilled corn ribs with queso fresco ($ 12), a mini version of Mexican street corn. That said, the carnivore in our group was happy with his steak and fries ($ 42). Other eateries on the island include a Japanese place and an Italian restaurant.
So it makes sense to stay here if you are does not on your way to Cornell Tech’s Roosevelt Island campus? If you’ve come to New York for its bright light / city atmosphere, no. But if you want a quiet place to lay your head after a day of city bustle in the city that never sleeps, this unique destination might be your cup of chamomile.
And the prospects are (ahem) insane.
Candidate Roosevelt Island, 22 North Loop Road, New York, NY; 929-447-4700; www.graduatehotels.com/roosevelt-island/. Prices from $ 219.
Diane Bair and Pamela Wright can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org