Smallpox Hospital

Located at the southern tip of Roosevelt Island, this fine Gothic Revival structure was originally constructed for the treatment of the “loathsome malady” known as smallpox. For many years it was the only institution of its kind in New York City. It is now a picturesque ruin, one which could readily serve as the setting for a 19th century “Gothic” romance.

In 1850, the construction of a new hospital was under consideration. It was also at this time  during which smallpox patients were cared for in what Resident Physician William Kelly described as “a pile of poor wooden out houses on the banks of the river.” Unlike numerous other medical institutions built by the City on the Island in the 19th century, the Smallpox Hospital was not planned exclusively for charity cases. Due to the seriousness and the contagious nature of the disease, paying patients were also admitted. Although vaccination against smallpox was a common medical practice by the mid-19th century, the disease continued to plague New York City. Smallpox often afflicted immigrants, and as such, increasingly more stringent quarantine measures were instituted. Even as late as 1871, smallpox continued to reach epidemic proportions in New York. During the Civil War many soldiers and immigrants, were stricken with the disease.

The original Smallpox Hospital (the north and south wings are later additions to the building)  was built between 1854-56 and designed by James Renwick Jr. It was first opened for public inspection on December 18, 1856. When the old buildings were destroyed by fire, patients had to be transferred to the new hospital which was not yet complete. Nevertheless, the Resident Physician, William Sanger, reported that the new building was “admirable,” an opinion which was also voiced by the professional staff during the following years. The Smallpox Hospital accommodated one hundred patients with charity cases in wards on the lower floors, while a series of private rooms on the upper floors was devoted for paying patients. In 1875, the Board of Health assumed control of the Smallpox Hospital, which had previously been administered by the Commission of Charities and Correction, and converted the building into a home for the nurses as well as the Maternity and Charity Hospital Training School. This school, established in 1875, was associated with Charity Hospital (later City Hospital), located just to the north of the Smallpox Hospital. As the training program expanded, a residence for the student nurses became necessary. The Smallpox Hospital became available for this purpose after a new hospital for the treatment of smallpox and other contagious diseases was built on North Brothers Island. This transition also reduced the danger of the disease spreading to Blackwell’s Island population, which by the end of the century numbered some seven thousand.

The Island was renamed Welfare Island in 1921, a reflection of the general nature of its use. In the course of the 20th century many of the institutional buildings there became inadequate and obsolete, among them, City Hospital, which in the 1950’s was relocated to new buildings in Queens. The main hospital building as well as the former Smallpox Hospital were abandoned. The Smallpox Hospital fell into disrepair and its deterioration continued at an ever accelerating pace. In the late 1960’s, despite its condition, it was included as part of a list of buildings on the Island considered worthy of preservation by the New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission and the noted architectural historian, Henry-Russell Hitchcock. The New York State Urban Development Corporation undertook certain measures to reinforce the walls of the structure under the direction of the prominent New York architect, Giorgio Cavaglieri. Presently, the building remains an uninhabitable ruin with all the romance which any great work of architecture retains as long as its general outlines can be discerned, evoking memories of its past.

As with many of the buildings erected on the Island, the Smallpox Hospital is faced with locally quarried gray gneiss. The hospital, which is three stories in height, is essentially U-shaped in plan, a configuration formed by the later addition of the north and south wings which flank the original central block of building. This central portion has a low-pitched hip roof which was originally crowned by a tall crenelated cupola with pointed arch openings. The original west facade, now recessed between the wings, is symmetrically arranged with a slightly projecting central pavilion that is three bays in width and projecting end pavilions that is one bay wide. These portions of the building are surmounted by the picturesque crenelated parapets. The windows of the first two floors are rectangular with six-over-six sash, and those on the third floor are designed with pointed, straight-sided arches consisting of stone blocks mitred at the top, an interesting and unusual design. The dramatic focal point of the building is the entryway, which features a heavy stone porch surmounted by a crenelated bay, similar in design to the stone oriel windows of the wings. The entry is further enhanced by the massive tower-like structure above, with a recessed Gothic pointed arch on corbels, crowned by crenelations, and a smaller freestanding pointed arch. The end wings were designed in character with the original central block; the south wing, the work of architects York & Sawyer, was built in 1903-04, and the north wing was added by Renwick, Aspinwall & Owen, successors to the firm of James Renwick Jr., in 1904-05. The only aspect of these wings not inspired by Renwick’ original gothic Revival design was a mansard roof with dormers, intended to provide additional space.

James Renwick, Jr. (1818-1895, pictured to the left), was one of New York’s most fashionable and successful architects. In 1840, he achieved notoriety with his Gothic Revival design for Grace Church, selected in a competition when Renwick, who was entirely self-trained as an architect, was only twenty-five. Renwick designed many other buildings elsewhere New York City, three of which are now designated New York City Landmarks. They include Grace Church, St. Patrick’s Cathedral, and the William E. Doge villa (now the Greyston Conference Center in the Bronx). These three, like the Smallpox Hospital, are in the Gothic Revival style which Renwick favored in the early years of his career. Later in his career, he would also design buildings in the French, Second Empire style.  A notable example of this was Charity Hospital on Roosevelt Island. For several years Renwick was Supervising Architect for the Commission of Charities and Correction, during which he designed the Workhouse, the Lighthouse, as well as the Charity and Smallpox Hospitals, on Roosevelt Island; the Inebriate and Lunatic Asylums on Ward’s Island; and the main building of the Children’s Hospital on Randal’s Island.

The Smallpox Hospital could easily become the American equivalent of the great Gothic ruins of England, just as the late 13th century Tintern Abbey in Monmouthshire, which has been admire and cherished since the 18th century as a romantic ruin. Plans have been made to transform the southern tip of Roosevelt Island into a park. Ruins in park settings were so greatly enjoyed in Europe during the 18th century that small “garden fabrics”, which were purely ornamental structures, were built in ruins found on various estates. The Smallpox Hospital, in a park setting, would be of comparable picturesque interest. In Fascination of Decay (1968), Paul Zucker stated that ruins can be “… an expression of an eerie romantic mood … a palpable documentation of a period in the past … something which recalls a specific concept of architectural space and proportion.” The Smallpox Hospital possesses all these evocative qualities.

The Ruin: Roosevelt Island’s Smallpox Hospital (the Paris Review – Oct. 30, 2017)