When most people think of NYC’s Roosevelt Island, they likely imagine the charming aerial tramway that runs parallel to the Ed Koch Queensboro Bridge near East 59th Street or perhaps they recall snapping to attention on the slender island (which is actually part of the borough of Manhattan) when the F train passes through for one stop. Some may be aware that Roosevelt Island houses the Cornell Tech campus; others might be familiar with its quiet, ample green space. As of this summer, however, the under-explored East River destination hosts a playful, design-forward hospitality venture known as the Graduate Roosevelt Island, its first-ever hotel, which is crowned by an 18th floor bar, the Panorama Room, that features stunning 360 degree vistas. It’s NYC like you’ve never seen it before.
The bright, airy and LEED-certified 224-key property is the vision of architecture and design studio Stonehill Taylor along with international architecture and design firm Snøhetta, with the latter also acting as a façade consultant (in order to integrate the building into the surrounding campus). Whimsy abounds—from the book-laden lobby to the retro-inspired ballroom-turned-Big-themed-playroom for all ages. The Graduate hotel brand is used to being in locations that support universities, but between its unexpected yet nearby (for New Yorkers) position, top-tier amenities and superb food and beverage program, it makes for an ideal staycation, as well.
“One of our biggest challenges that we are actually looking forward to is getting people here,” Med Abrous, of hospitality duo Call Mom, tells us on our property tour. Abrous and business partner Marc Rose oversee the food and beverage outlets in this Graduate, as well as the hotel group’s properties in Nashville and Seattle (and, of course, they’re behind LA’s The Spare Room). “But once you get here,” he continues, “you experience these sensations of ‘Where am I?’ and ‘Why is this so close to where I live?’ or ‘I can’t believe I haven’t explored this area.'”
The Graduate Roosevelt Island hotel has sentimental value to Rose and Abrous, as both are born and raised New Yorkers. “I think that this is a way to create an experience that is unique and can change the landscape of NYC,” Abrous continues. “It’s been a location that’s idyllic to live on, with almost every sports field around it. But this forward-thinking reinvigoration is important to the city as a whole. It’s a very interesting perspective.”
Call Mom’s ground-floor restaurant, Anything At All, is open all day and flows from the lobby while also incorporating 60 outdoor seats. “It’s a magical space,” Abrous says. He and Rose brought in an all-star, all-woman team to run it, including chef Megan Brown, who formerly worked with Marcus Samuelsson at Red Rooster, as well as at The Standard and Ace Hotels; and beverage director Estelle Bossy, formerly of Union Square Hospitality Group and Del Posto. The restaurant’s menu is comforting and veggie-forward; the cocktail program is thoughtful and innovative.
Public places and meeting spaces are plentiful. Regardless of where one ends up in the property, you can’t help but feel connected to the water. Many guest rooms also provide electric views of the the skyline. Graduate’s in-house design team handled the decor—and Roosevelt Island’s history runs through the rooms (as do nods to Cornell and Cornell alums).
“When we signed on for the project and stood on this half-built building, we really started developing a strong identity for what could be our lure, something that would bring people to the middle of the East River, something spectacular,” Abrous says from the elegant Panorama Room, which blends indoor and outdoor seating. The views really are unlike any other—because one like this has never been built.
“This is a New York story because this view is New York as far as the eye can see. There’s no New Jersey. There’s Downtown Brooklyn, Manhattan, One World Trade, the entire east side. At the bar, the backdrop is the 59th Street Bridge. We’re beside its armature,” Abrous says. “We knew we needed to be like a lighthouse, a beacon to let people know we are here, so we worked very hard with our designers, PLD, to be able to glow.” Nothing is an afterthought. And the only way to understand how it feels is to go yourself, whether that’s by the subway, tram or even the ferry, as Abrous himself sometimes does.
Images by Steve Freihorn