NYC - Roosevelt Island - The Octagon
The Octagon, located at 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. As originally built, the five-story octagonal rotunda of was flanked by two long wings and topped with a domed roof.
The Asylum was erected out of a need for proper accomodation of the insane. Scientific advances in the 19th century brought about the recongition that they needed medical assistance, not merely custoidal restraint. In the early years, though, patients were supervised by inmates from the Penitentiary under direction of a small medical staff. It wasn't until 1850 that a suitable staff was hired. The facility was plagued by overcrowding and financial shortfalls. Diets were inadquate. Scurvy, Typhus and colera epidemics afflicted staff and patients alike. Over the years, conditions gradually improved and additional buildings were added.
In 1894, it was determined that the facilities could no longer adequately care for the growing numbers of insane, and patients were transferred to hospitals on Ward's Island. The Lunatic Asylum was renamed the Metropolitan Hospital became a general hospital with special emphasis on the treatment of tubercular patients. In the 1950s the buildings on the island were abandoned for new quarters in Manhattan. The Landmarks Preservation Commission managed to preserve the central octagon, but the wings were demolished in 1970, while a series of fires destroyed the domed roof.
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 dramtic 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. The main entrance of the Octagon, at first floor level, is approached by a double staircase of stone which was originally covered by a wooden porch, 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.
A.J. Davis' original plan called for two octagons, as part of a "Tuscan style" u-shaped complex. The City altered the design in Greek Revival style centered around the one octagon with a crenelated cupola. In 1847-48, a north-south wing was built repeating the style of the east-west wing. In 1879, Joseph M. Dunn was commissioned to raise the wings one story, and add the dome-like mansard roof with and a double staircase entrance.
In 2000, the firm of Becker + Becker restored the landmark as a luxury residential community. Apartments sized from studio to 3-bedroom occupy the site of the building's two original wings. And in the center stands The Octagon itself, its signature flying staircase reinvented, its majestic cupola rebuilt. The famed rotunda now houses a lobby and fitness center, café, billiards and clubroom, gallery and conference rooms.
The Octagon was designated a landmark by the New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission in 1975.