Roosevelt Island Historical Walk
by Neil Tandon for the Roosevelt Island Historical Society©


Page 3 of 18

When Smallpox Hospital opened in 1856, it was the first hospital in the nation to receive victims of contagion and plague. It was the only hospital in New York City to receive cases of smallpox. The island's other institutions exclusively accepted charity cases (those patients who could not afford private institutions). Smallpox disease, however, was especially contagious and dangerous and required a more secure form of quarantine.

Thus, Smallpox Hospital also accepted paying patients who occupied private rooms on the upper floors. Before this hospital, the island treated smallpox patients in wooden shacks along the river.

Smallpox Hospital, ca. 1860
With the serious -- at times epidemic -- proportions of the disease in New York City, this 100-bed facility was long overdue.

Smallpox Hospital was designed by famed architect James Renwick, Jr., whose best known New York work is St. Patrick's Cathedral. The building material is gray gneiss, the "granite" that was routinely quarried here.

As with most of the other structures built here with city money, construction workers and quarrymen were all inmates from the nearby Blackwell's Island Penitentiary. (This island was then called Blackwell's.)

Smallpox Hospital (then City Hospital Nursing School), with northern and southern wings added, ca. 1905.
Due to the island's both natural and human resources, the hospital's construction costs amounted to a mere $38,000.

Renwick's design is unique and imposing. The third floor windows are designed with unusual triangular arches. A heavy stone porch surmounts the entrance, creating a dramatic focal point. At the building's center, a massive tower-like structure with intricate Gothic details dominates the sky.

In 1875 Smallpox was renamed Riverside Hospital, but its services did not change. In 1886 patients were transferred to a new Riverside Hospital opened on North Brother Island. Thereafter, this building was occupied by the Home for the Nurses of the Maternity and City Hospital Training School, America's third school of nursing. From 1902 to 1905, the nursing school added the northern and southern wings. The building was abandoned in the early 1950s.

Smallpox Hospital (the "Renwick Ruin"), 1998
Now the only evidence of the hospital is a gray roofless shell at the island's southern tip. In 1975 Giorgio Cavaglieri oversaw Smallpox's stabilization, as he would with the island's other landmarks. Smallpox, nevertheless, remains a ruin in need of restoration. A reinforced fence (installed in 1986), rubble from the demolished City Hospital, and densely clustered trees all prevent any public view of Smallpox's ruins from Roosevelt Island itself. The best view is from Manhattan's East Side at nighttime, when its illumination (arranged by the lighting designer for the Statue of Liberty) provides a particularly spooky spectacle.

Roosevelt Island Historical Walk ©2000 by Neil Tandon & Roosevelt Island Historical Society
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