11. Roosevelt Island Smallpox Hospital
The smallpox hospital was completed in 1856 and designed by James Renwick Jr. (who designed St. Patrick’s Cathedral). It was built using labor from the nearby lunatic asylum. It was open for 19 years and treated about 7,000 patients who had the “loathsome malady,” the nickname for smallpox. Many of these were impoverished immigrants who had not received the vaccine for smallpox yet or didn’t trust the immunization process, or Union soldiers who needed curing.
Plans for the new hospital began in about 1850, as the Landmarks Preservation Commission reports, when those affilicted with smallpox were cared for in “a pile of poor wooden out houses on the banks of the river,” in the words of Resident Physician William Kelly. It admitted patients who could not pay, but also patients who could – making it a unique facility in New York City at the time. Up to 100 charity patients would be housed on the wards on the lower floors, with paying patients in private rooms upstairs. The hospital expanded in size over the years, with the north and south wings between 1903 and 1905.
In 1875, the hospital closed when it became too crowded and the facilities were relocated North Brother Island. The building was then used as a training hospital for nurses until 1950. It entered a period of abandonment and despair, but was landmarked in 1976 by New York City. It remains New York City’s only landmarked ruin and one of its easy-to-reach abandoned places.