The growing graduate-level Cornell Tech campus — the first phase of which opened in 2017 — is a new chapter for Roosevelt Island, which earned attention in the 19th century for its penitentiary and workhouses, a smallpox hospital and an asylum for the mentally ill.
Traces of that troubling history remain on the island, but now gleaming 21st-century buildings are springing up at Cornell Tech. The Graduate aims to bridge old and new, with nods to the island’s history, Cornell’s past and a state-of-the-art future.
A 12-foot sculpture and walls of textbooks greet guests at the front desk.
Inside the hotel
The lobby incorporates tactile nods to old-school education with a laptop-compatible library table, complete with domed task lamps and textbooks stacked to the ceiling.
“We love this idea that our lobby would kind of be rooted in the past as much as possible. So one of the things we did is install 5,000 linear feet of textbooks across the entire lobby backdrop,” said Rochefort.
Students and professionals who are learning and building businesses “literally across the courtyard from us” will find a different perspective from “the future and what they’re building for tomorrow,” he said.
The space is playful, too. A giant boy in aviator goggles holds a light bulb over the front desk (a 12-foot Hebru Brantley sculpture reinterpreting the artist’s Flyboy character).
As in all the Graduate properties, hotel key cards are designed to look like college IDs — in this case featuring Cornell University alums (from the main campus in Ithaca, New York) with significant ties to New York City (Ruth Bader Ginsburg, for one).
Guest rooms feature nods to Cornell and Roosevelt Island history.
Interiors are the work of Graduate Hotels’ in-house design team. The building’s architecture, which optimizes views of Manhattan, Queens and beyond, is by design firms Snøhetta and Stonehill Taylor.
In the rooms, accented with collegiate plaid, there are light fixtures inspired by a science project by a Cornell alum and lamp bases that feature a Morse code rendition of Cornell’s fight song.
Work by New York artists includes some fun references to both Bly and actress Mae West, who spent some time locked up on the island in 1927 on public obscenity charges.
Crowning the hotel, a futuristic rooftop bar and event space will feature sweeping views and a menu created by New York City natives Med Abrous and Marc Rose, the Los Angeles-based restaurateurs responsible for food and beverage at several Graduate locations.
Roosevelt Island is located in the East River between Manhattan and Queens.
On the island
The island later became known as Welfare Island and was renamed Roosevelt Island in 1973 to honor President Franklin D. Roosevelt.
While most of its early buildings are gone, there are some historic sites. The ivy-entwined ruins of the smallpox hospital — designed by Smithsonian Institution architect James Renwick Jr. — make for an imposing reminder of some of Roosevelt Island’s 19th- and 20th-century history and the park on the northern tip is anchored by a Renwick-designed lighthouse.
An octagonal tower that was part of the asylum for the mentally ill has been folded into an apartment development — part of the island’s more recent transformation.
The island is accessible by car, the F Train and the aerial Tramway, which opened in 1976 and offers the most scenic way to get there.