New York City Lunatic Asylum - A Brief History

Building: The New York City Lunatic Asylum

Architect: Alexander Jackson Davis, restoration and adaptive reuse in 2006 by Becker + Becker

Design and Construction: 1834-1839

Location: Northern end of Roosevelt Island, New York City

Alexander Jackson Davis, Avery Library

Alexander Jackson Davis, Avery Library

The New York City Lunatic Asylum, now a residential building known as The Octagon, was designed in 1834-35 and opened in 1839.  The building’s architect was Alexander Jackson Davis (1803-1892), known for the United States Custom House (presently the Federal Hall National Memorial) in downtown Manhattan, among many government buildings across the United States.

According to the New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission report of 1976, the Lunatic Asylum “was erected in response to the desperate need for proper accommodation for the insane.” By the mid-1800s, the island was expanding with medical and institutional developments, a reflection of the City’s progressive changes toward the infirm:  the mentally ill were not meant for prisons and restraints, but could benefit from medical assistance and support by skilled practitioners.

Location of the Lunatic Asylum, now The Octagon, on Roosevelt Island

Location of the Lunatic Asylum, now The Octagon, on Roosevelt Island

In 1894, the asylum was renamed Metropolitan Hospital but was abandoned by the mid-1950s. Like the Smallpox Hospital, it immediately began to fall into great disrepair. The roof was caving in, its architectural details were shedding, and the building’s formidable dome needed repair. Despite its derelict state, in 1972 it was added to the National Register of Historic Places for, among many items, its expressive use of stone quarried from the island. In 2006, architect and developer Becker + Becker masterfully restored the building and converted it into a residential structure. A must see when visiting Roosevelt Island.

Historic American Building Survey

Today, we showcase images taken of the asylum by the Library of Congress and the Historic American Building Survey. These photographs were taken in the 1970s and reveal the building's beauty and disrepair.