Meet the history buffs who live in NYC’s most notorious asylum

This week marks the 100th anniversary of the death of Elizabeth Cochrane Seaman, better known as groundbreaking investigative journalist Nellie Bly, who passed away on Jan. 27, 1922.

In her honor, the Roosevelt Island Operating Corporation (RIOC) — the group dedicated to operating and maintaining the island — is in the process of creating a monument to her accomplishments, with a winning artist to be announced and commissioned this year.

But for some lucky residents of Roosevelt Island, Bly’s presence is already felt on a daily basis.

“The building has a magical vibe, and you fall in love with it the minute you step into the lobby,” Joanna Sawruk, a 44-year-old financial advisor told The Post of her home in The Octagon, the luxury apartment building built on the site of the old New York City Lunatic Asylum.

That asylum was the subject of Bly’s muckraking exposé “Inside the Madhouse,” published in Joseph Pulitzer’s “New York World” on Oct. 9, 1887.

To get the scoop, a 23-year-old Bly went undercover as a patient at the asylum.

She reported on the atrocious conditions inside the institution where up to 1,700 poor souls were locked away at any given time. She and others were beaten, had freezing water poured over their heads and were made to sit upright on wooden benches for eight-hour stretches. The echoes of women screaming for help burned in her ears as she tried to sleep.

Joanna Sawruk in her apartment at The Octagon tower residential building.
Octagon resident Joanna Sawruk loves living in a piece of NYC history.
Stefano Giovannini

“The insane asylum on Blackwell’s Island [now Roosevelt Island] is a human rat-trap. It is easy to get in, but once there, it is impossible to get out,” Bly wrote of her experience inside America’s first city-run asylum.

Bly turned her article into a bestselling book, which led to meaningful reform that favored patient care and helped put an end to some of the horrors she witnessed. Her story even became the 2019 TV movie “Escaping the Madhouse: The Nellie Bly Story.” But today, Bly would be shocked to learn that New Yorkers pay a premium to live in that human rattrap.

Over the years. the geometric, blue-gray stone edifice — built in the Gothic revival tradition in 1834 by the well-known New York architect Alexander Jackson Davis — that formed the center of the old loony bin was transformed into a hospital in 1893.

After closing in 1955, and sitting in ruins for decades, the building was again reimagined as a collection of 500 rental units, opening in 2006. Today, New Yorkers like Sawruk pay rent ranging from $2,326 for a studio to $6,934 for a three-bedroom, two-bathroom apartment to live on the grounds of the old institution.

An interior shot of a unit at The Octagon.
In 2006, the long-abandoned institute was redeveloped into 500 luxury rentals with swank common areas.
Stefano Giovannini

The 13-story building now boasts floor-to-ceiling windows with full East River and Manhattan views, roof decks, walk-in closets, a gym, a club room and even a heated pool. Only a small historic landmark plaque on the front exterior indicates the building’s frightening past.

But for history buffs who scoff at a few skeletons in the closet and loads of well-documented horrors, now’s your best chance to live in the midst of one of New York’s most fascinating stories on the cheap.

Roosevelt Island real estate hasn’t fared much better than Manhattan through the pandemic.

The Octagon's historic yet ominous outdoor plaque.
The Octagon’s historic outdoor plaque is a reminder of the bad old days.
Stefano Giovannini

According to PropertyShark, real estate transactions on Roosevelt Island fell 50 percent in the third quarter of 2020 compared to the previous year and the price per square foot plummeted by almost the same amount to $556 per square foot (although with just three sizable transactions in the quarter, the median sale price actually increased 28 percent).

Many rental buildings on Roosevelt Island are currently offering generous concessions, and The Octagon is no exception. It’s offering three months of free rent through the end of January when you sign a lease.

Rob Berman, a sales and marketing associate for Bozzuto, the management company that runs The Octagon, said that the building’s history is a major draw, with tourists gathering to snap shots of the exterior.

“There’s definitely a history that you can feel,” said Berman. “That definitely adds to the uniqueness and the touch of Roosevelt Island that a lot of places don’t have.”

While Berman hasn’t personally experienced anything supernatural at The Octagon, “I almost would like to because that would be such a little experience,” he said.
Others have.

A side by side of The Octagon's starwells.
From 1893 to 1955 The Octagon was a hospital (left). Today, the central staircase (right) serves residents as a grand lobby.
Courtesy Municipal Archives, City of New York.; Stefano Giovannini

“I did hear weird noises at times, who knows what they were? Can’t rule out ghosts!” said Theo U. Farge, a finance professional who lived in The Octagon from 2012 to 2013. “[The noises] were alarming to say the least, voices perhaps?”

Other former tenants recall hearing weird noises, bumps and bangs and garbled voices in the building. Pet dogs stare and bark at things that their owners can’t see. Seagulls frenetically circle its namesake tower. There’s a distinct thickness in the air in and around The Octagon, they said.

Lee Kuzi — a professional photographer who lived in The Octagon for nine years and recently left to move to Israel — added that ghost hunters and tourists regularly stopped by to gawk at the building.

Nearby city tennis courts at The Octagon tower residential building.
The 13-story apartment building that surrounds the historic asylum boasts stunning water views and amenities like nearby tennis courts.
Stefano Giovannini

“When I moved to The Octagon and found out about Nellie Bly and read her extraordinary story, it did make me feel honored to be living in such a building, and I was very impressed by her braveness,” she said. “I was also proud to share her story to every new guest I had visiting me at The Octagon.

It felt like I am part of history. Once you find yourself as a resident of such a building, you get attached to unique stories such as this, as well as to following stories about the ghosts that were the patients in the asylum.”

“I did hear weird noises at times, who knows what they were? Can’t rule out ghosts!”

Theo U. Farge, a former Octagon resident

Like Kuzi, most residents said they don’t worry too much about their home’s disturbing past. In fact, they enjoy the rich history.

“Much like its iconic architecture, The Octagon has had many faces,” said Shelton Haynes, acting president and CEO of RIOC. “From its time as part of the oldest partnership between the hospital and private medical school, and the site of Nellie Bly’s groundbreaking journalistic exposé, to its reinvention as a sustainable residential community, The Octagon serves as a historically poignant landmark to Roosevelt Island and beyond.”

Sawruk is also more interested in her home’s role in reforming mental healthcare than in its alleged ghost’s stories.

“The wings with the apartment units are newly built and the only original structure is The Octagon with the staircase, so we are not living within the actual walls where former patients lived,” she said. “My 11-year-old son recently learned about Nellie Bly, and was very intrigued by the story. We appreciate being part of it.”

Products You May Like

Articles You May Like

Recent Cannabis Use Linked to Higher Heart Risk in Those under 45
Lipstick Lobby Has Mass Shooting Survivors in Latest Campaign

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *