The city of New York plans to tear down most of the historic buildings on Hart Island, where more than one million people are buried in unmarked graves. The city declared an emergency, which bypasses cultural resource and environmental reviews.
New York State designated the entire island off the coast of the Bronx eligible for listing on the State and National Registers of Historic Places in 2016. About 20 institutional and residential structures remain at the mile-long site, including a women’s insane asylum built in 1885 known as “The Pavilion,” a 1912 electrical generating dynamo building, and a 1930s Catholic chapel – 18 are planned to be demolished.
The island’s has been used as a Civil War prison and United States Colored Troops training site and later a psychiatric hospital and substance abuse facility. The island became the repository for New York City’s unclaimed dead in the late 1800s. It’s mass graves of the city’s poor or unidentified include casualties of disasters like the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire, to victims of the Great Influenza pandemic, the AIDS epidemic and the COVID-19 pandemic. Important artists who died in poverty, such Disney star Bobby Driscol and playwright Leo Birinski, have been discovered buried there. A substance-abuse rehabilitation center, Phoenix House, was located on the island until 1976.
On July 1, control of Hart Island was transferred from city’s Department of Correction to the Parks Department, according to John Freeman Gill, reporting in the New York Times. The emergency order was issued June 5th by the Department of Buildings citing public safety and calling for “immediate demolition,” Gill reported. Historic preservationists are calling for a full review before the buildings are bulldozed. Final approval of the $52 million plan is up to City Comptroller Scott M. Stringer.
“Clearly this is all a pretext for environmental-law evasion,” Jack L. Lester, a lawyer who specializes in New York environmental review law told the New York Times. “There’s no emergency, but that’s something they can hang their hat on to avoid any kind of public scrutiny. It’s not rational — it’s pretextual, it’s arbitrary and it violates the law.”
Before colonization Hart Island was homeland of the Siwanoy tribe. Later is was the location of several important 19th century bare-knuckle boxing matches.
You can learn more about the history of Hart Island in Michael T. Keene’s 2019 book New York City’s Hart Island: A Cemetery of Strangers.
Read more about historic preservation in New York State here.
Photos, from above: The Pavilion today from above the roof of the Catholic chapel (Alon Sicherman & Sean Vegezzi photo courtesy The Hart Island Project); The 1930s Catholic chapel on Hart Island (Melinda Hunt photo courtesy The Hart Island Project).