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Chronicles: Renwick Smallpox Hospital

Renwick Smallpox Hospital, Roosevelt Island

Renwick Smallpox Hospital, Roosevelt Island

In the mid-1800s, the smallpox vaccine was readily available in New York but despite that, the city continued to suffer outbreaks of the often deadly disease. This continued plague on residents was due to the high amounts of immigrants arriving each day. To try and abate smallpox from spreading throughout the boroughs, a hospital was built on Blackwell’s Island in the middle of the East River, close to Midtown Manhattan. The island was already in use for housing the less fortunate in prisons, insane asylums and various hospitals so the remote location, accessible only by ferry, seemed perfect.
In 1854, the famous architect James Renwick, Jr was commissioned to build the hospital which would quite simply be called, The Smallpox Hospital. It had been a prosperous two years for Renwick, he had just been hired to build the new St. Patrick’s Cathedral on the corner of Fifth Avenue and 51st Street. The hospital was built in the neo-gothic style and two years after the ground was broken, it was up and running, serving charity cases in long wards on the bottom floors and paying customers in private rooms on the top floors. All in all, the facility could hold 100 patient beds and as of 1872, was servicing 7,000 infected each year with an average of 450 deaths.

In 1886, the smallpox no longer a concern, the hospital was emptied and used to house and train nurses. It was renamed he Maternity and Charity Hospital Training School and two new wings were added, they date from 1903-1905. In 1921, the island was renamed Welfare Island and in the 50s, the institutions still operating there left and abandoned its buildings. In 1973, the island was once again renamed, this time to Roosevelt Island, and Renwick’s once magnificent hospital fell to ruins. It has not been until recent years, after a wall collapse in 2007, that major efforts were put forth to stabilize the building, the only ruin in New York designated as a National Landmark. Because of these efforts, the newly renamed Renwick Smallpox Hospital is now open to visitors and it’s facade is lit up nightly courtesy of an unnamed patron whose penthouse on the East River overlooks the hospital and wanted his guests to be able to see its haunting grandeur.

Renwick Smallpox Hospital
Accessible by the 59th St. tram (which takes a NYC Metro card), the F train from Brooklyn or Manhattan or a free bridge that connects the island to Queens, in Long Island City.

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