Hart Island a place of historic significance: New York State report

Hart Island a place of historic significance: New York State report
Community News Group / Patrick Rocchio

Hart Island, a 101-acre island off City Island that is home to the city’s Potters Field, has been designated a place of historical significance.

The NYS Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation determined that Hart Island, the final resting place for the city’s indigent since 1869, meets requirements for an historic district based on state and federal guidelines, according to an evaluation released on Tuesday, October 4.

The report stated that the ‘Hart Island Historic District’ met three of four requirements for listing on the National Registry of Historic Places, including being associated with events that have made contributions to the broad pattern of history and yielding or being likely to yield information important to history.

The request for consideration by the state office took place a year ago on behalf of the City Island Historical Society, said the organization’s vice-president Barbara Dolensek.

“I wrote them well over a year ago and asked if they could consider it as eligible for the state and national register of historic places for the ‘Hart Island Historic District,’ and they have agreed that it is eligible,” said Dolensek, adding that she learned that the agency already did an examination of the island.

Melinda Hunt of the Hart Island Project, an advocacy group requesting more public access for families to visit gravesites on the island, which is currently under the jurisdiction of the NYC Department of Correction, indicated that having the state recognize Hart Island’s historic elements was significant.

“I think it should be a national monument,” said Hunt, adding “It is an outstanding place for us to revisit our history.”

Many of the historic buildings are in poor condition said John Doyle, City Island Civic Association board member, who has visited the normally off-limits island and said that the CICA would be discussing the findings at its next meeting on Tuesday, October 25.

“I don’t anticipate a lot of opposition to preserving the buildings,” he said. “As someone who has seen the structures, it is a shame that the DOC has allowed these buildings to essentially be demolished by neglect.”

According to the evaluation, the island was first used by the government in 1864 to train African-American troops during the Civil War.

Later during the Civil War, for four months in 1865, it was a prisoner camp for 3,413 captured Confederate soldiers.

The U.S. Navy used it as a disciplinary barracks for Navy, Coast Guard and Marine personnel, according to the survey, and from 1954 to 1969, during the Cold War, the ten northernmost acres of Hart Island were used as a Nike missile launcher area.

It has also been a prison and reformatory, and was once used as a drug treatment center operated by Phoenix House.

There are several notable buildings on the island including a brick Catholic chapel, a workhouse, a dynamo building and a building dating back to 1885 known as ‘the Pavilion.’

The island remains off-limits, other than for some families who are able to visit gravesites, and it is unclear how historic designation would alter DOC’s management of the island, according to sources.

Reach Reporter Patrick Rocchio at (718) 260–4597. E-mail him at procchio@cnglocal.com. Follow him on Twitter @patrickfrocchio.