The Octagon, located a the northern end of Roosevelt Island, served as the administrative center and main entrance hall of the New York City Lunatic Asylum, one of the first institutions of its kind established in this country. Designs for the Asylum were prepared in 1834-35 by the noted New York architect, Alexander Jackson Davis, and the building was opened in 1839. His plans called for a much more elaborate scheme than was actually built by the City. The Octagon was to have been one of a pair within a great U-shaped complex, ordered around a central rectangular pavilion. As built, the single Octagon, from which two long wings extended, became the focal point of the building. Much admired in the 19th century for its architectural excellence, the Octagon now stands alone, the imposing geometric clarity and simplicity of its design fully revealed.
The City of New York purchased Blackwell’s Island, as Roosevelt Island was called in the 19th century, in 1828 with a view to institutional development; it was believed that the pleasant island surroundings would be conducive to both physical and mental rehabilitation. Construction of the Island Penitentiary began in 1829, and at the end of the following decade, the Lunatic Asylum was built. An Almshouse, Workhouse, and numerous charity hospitals were also built on Blackwell’s Island during the course of the century. The Lunatic Asylum was erected in response to the desperate need for proper accommodation of the insane. Previously, these cases had been assigned to a few overcrowded and poorly maintained wards in Bellevue Hospital. In the mid-19th century, the attitude towards the treatment and care of the insane underwent significant and progressive change. Recognition that they required medical assistance, not merely custodial restraint, led to the founding of such institutions as the New York City Lunatic Asylum. This change in attitude was, however, only gradual and is demonstrated by the fact that, in the early years of the Lunatic Asylum, patients were supervised by inmates from the Penitentiary under the direction of a small medical staff. The physicians in charge of the Asylum deplored this situation and in 1850 a suitable staff of orderlies and nurses was hired. Physical activity, labor, and entertainment were prescribed as therapeutic treatments for mental disturbances.
As such, the male patients of the Lunatic Asylum who were willing and able, worked in vegetable gardens or built sea walls in order to reclaim land, while female patients aided in housekeeping chores and worked as seamstresses. A library, for the most part the result of donations from publishing houses and private citizens, was formed, and weekly dances were held. At the recommendation of a resident physician, even a billiard table was purchased.
However, the Asylum was plagued with difficulties, primarily a result of over-crowding and financial inadequacies. In the early years the diet of the patients was inadequate and scurvy became a relatively common disease. Typhus and cholera epidemics afflicted the staff and patients alike in the 1860’s. When Charles Dickens visited in the United States in 1842, he was taken on a tour of the Blackwell’s Island Lunatic Asylum where he much admired the architecture, calling the building “handsome” and the Octagon an especially “elegant” feature; but he further commented in his American Notes (1842): everything [at the Asylum] had a lounging, listless, madhouse air which was very painful.” Through the perseverance of the resident physicians and other concerned New Yorkers, conditions were gradually improved. Additional buildings were constructed to ease overcrowding and to separate violent patients from less serious cases. The facilities in general were made more pleasant and comfortable. By 1875, a contributor to Harper’s Weekly magazine was able to write, “Very few sane persons inhabit more healthy and convenient chambers.”
In 1894, it had been determined that municipal facilities could no longer adequately care for the great numbers of indigent insane. Ward’s Island also in the East River was consequently ceded to the State of New York, and all New York City mental patients were transferred to hospitals there. The Lunatic Asylum was renamed Metropolitan Hospital and became a general hospital with special emphasis on the treatment of tubercular patients. In the 1950’s the buildings on the Island were abandoned for new quarters in Manhattan. By the late 1960’s the Island redevelopment project of the New York State Urban Development Corporation, threatened the old Asylum with demolition. Fortunately it was decided, on the basis of recommendations made by the Landmarks Preservation Commission and a report prepared by the noted architectural historian, Henry-Russell Hitchcock, to preserve the central Octagon. Demolition of the two wings which projected at right angles to the south and west was completed in 1970, and temporary preservation measures were taken for the Octagon under the direction of the New York architect, Giorgio Cavaglieri, who also restored two other buildings on the island, the Blackwell House and Chapel of the Good Shepherd.
The Octagon has a complicated history of alteration and modification, which has been carefully traced by Jane B. Davies, an authority on the work of A. J. Davis. The original 1834-35 design by Davis was in what he termed the “Tuscan Style.” The Octagon was to have had a low-pitched hip roof with wide eaves and a central skylight. Construction of the Asylum had barely begun, however, when the City Council ordered work halted because of disagreements over the design. In 1837, work resumed, but Davis’ great U-shaped plan was reduced to a single octagon joined to a single east-west wing. The upper portion of the Octagon was altered to include a crenelated cupola and the architectural detail was changed to the Greek Revival style. Davis had intended the Octagon to house a kitchen, dining hall, day rooms, a laundry, and baths. It now became the administrative center and main entrance as well as the living quarters for the Resident Physician. This phase of construction was completed in 1839, under the supervision of two master-builders, as Davis was apparently no longer associated with the project. In 1847-48, a north-south wing was built repeating the style of the earlier east-west wing. Architect Joseph M. Dunn was commissioned in 1879 to alter the Asylum. He raised the wings one story in height and, to retain the visual prominence of the Octagon, added a dome-like convex mansard roof with Neo-Greco detail. To further enhance the Octagon, a new main entrance was constructed with a double staircase.
The Octagon, executed in the gray “granite” (actually gray gneiss) quarried on the Island in the 19th century, is a smooth-walled, crisply faceted structure, relying for its dramatic effect on the clarity of its geometry and the boldness of its silhouette. The fenestration is especially notable as the earliest surviving example of the “Davisean window”; paired windows appear at each floor, separated by heavy mullions and by simple stone transverse members, creating a very modern feeling of continuous verticality. A double staircase of stone that was originally covered by a wooden porch approaches the main entrance of the Octagon, at first floor level, and has heavy wing walls adorned by recessed panels. The walls of the building are free of any ornament and are crowned above the third floor by a simple projecting metal cornice with boldly scaled dentils and a paneled frieze beneath. At the center of the roof is the simple octagonal cupola surmounted by its dome-like octagonal roof. This tall, convex mansard roof is crowned by a heavy cornice and pierced by two tiers of dormer windows. The rectangular windows are enframed by Neo-Greco pilasters and pediments, and smaller dormers with oval windows appear above.
Exterior of the Octagon Tower showing front steps, before renovation.
The plan of the Octagon is composed of a central rotunda surrounded by four rooms, separated by corridors which radiate outward. The rotunda contains a spiral staircase constructed of cast iron with wood ionic columns encircling the high central stairwell- an especially beautiful space, described by Henry-Russell Hitchcock as one of the grandest interiors in the City.
Although the silhouette and proportions of the Octagon have been altered by the addition of Dunn’s mansard dome, the major credit for the design of the structure may be assigned to Alexander Jackson Davis (1803-1892), a native New Yorker and highly successful architect, who worked throughout the United States. In the early years of his career Davis was in partnership with the prominent architect Ithiel Town (1874-1844) with whom he designed the New York Customs House (now Federal Hall National Memorial), a designated New York City Landmark. During the period of his association with Town, Davis designed the Blackwell’s Island Lunatic Asylum in addition to the state capitals of Indiana, North Carolina, Illinois, and Ohio, the Wadsworth Athenaeum in Hartford, and the Patent Office in Washington D.C. His commissions were, however not limited solely to public buildings; he was also responsible for numerous commercial buildings, churches and domestic structures, and was the author of two books Views of the Public Buildings in the City of New York (c.1830) and Rural Residences (1837). While Davis was a highly competent practitioner of the Greek Revival style (in his early twenties he made an intensive study of Greek detail), he was also well versed in many other styles, as his original “Tuscan” design for the Lunatic Asylum demonstrates.
The architectural historian, Talbot Hamlin, has praised Davis’ “consistent feeling for logical planning.” The original symmetrical plan made by Davis for the New York City Lunatic Asylum took into account efficient supervision of patients, ease of circulation, as well ample provision for good lighting and ventilation in the wards. Davis’ plan was a variant of the influential “panoptic plan,” which was centralized with radiating wings, developed in Great Britain by Jeremy Bentham (1742-1832), a philosopher and jurist interested in prison reform. While only a portion of Davis’ original proposal for the Lunatic Asylum was actually built, the plan still functioned very effectively. Davis’ New York City Asylum project was also significant in that it served as the prototype for his North Carolina Hospital for the Insane at Raleigh.
Dr. R.L. Parsons, Resident Physician of the Lunatic Asylum during the 1860’s, remarked in his annual report of 1865 that the Octagon “has a symmetry, a beauty and a grandeur even, that are to be admired.” These qualities are still in evidence, not only to the visitor to Roosevelt Island, but also from Manhattan where the picturesque silhouette of the Octagon is a prominent feature of the island’s skyline.