2. The Landmarked Ruin: The Roosevelt Island Smallpox Hospital

James Renwick-Smallpox Hospital-Castle-Roosevelt Island-Landmarked Ruin-NYC

Before the end of the 19th century, it was common to isolate patients suffering from diseases like smallpox in hospitals on New York City’s other islands. North Brother Island was home to a typhoid sanatorium, Hoffman and Swinburne Islands off Staten Island were completely manmade quarantine stations, and a mob of arsonists burned down the Marine Quarantine Hospital on Staten Island.

Closer to Manhattan was Roosevelt Island, up until more recent history a place to locate those in society that didn’t quite fit: prisoners, lunatics and smallpox victims. The location of the Renwick Smallpox Hospital on Roosevelt Island was strategically chosen so patients would be far away from the healthy population on Manhattan. The hospital, completed in 1856 in a Gothic-revival style, was designed by James Renwick Jr., who is known for designing St. Patrick’s Cathedral on Fifth Avenue.

For the 19 years the hospital operated (until 1875), approximately 7,000 patients were treated here. In 1875, the hospital relocated to North Brother Island because Blackwell’s Island had become too populated and the building was converted into a nurses dormitory. By the 1950s, the original smallpox hospital was abandoned.

In 1975, the Landmarks Preservation Committee declared the structure a city landmark, the only landmarked ruin in New York City. They reinforced the structure to prevent it from toppling to the ground, while the Four Freedoms Park had done some additional reinforcement hoping to turn it into a visitors center, a project that has since stalled.