Place  /  Retrieval

The Ruin: Roosevelt Island’s Smallpox Hospital

An inside look at a forgotten Northeast epicenter of smallpox treatment.
New York City Municipal Archives

The old hospital, entangled in vines and red ivy, looks like it is being clawed at by the earth, pulled under. The floor and roof, its beautiful cornices, an ornate cupola, are long gone. They are collected in heaps at the center, buried, or swept away entirely. Beneath layers of black, the native schist rock is green, orange, gray, and pink. The pointed-arch windows, a Renwick signature, remember no glass. Where the names RICE, SKYLAR, and JONES once adorned the entryways, now there remain a few faint letters. The bell turret lists. Within, brick walls and archways look moments from turning to dust. The north wall has vanished; the other walls are held up by metal bracing, though if one looks closely, the exterior is leaning out of plumb several inches (it can only be viewed from beyond a fence). Looking at photos of it in its original form is like looking at a young photo of an old person, once glorious, now forlorn. Things fall apart.

Construction began in 1854, and in 1856 the building was opened as the first major U.S. hospital dedicated to treating smallpox. The total cost of the construction was thirty-eight thousand dollars, roughly the equivalent of a million dollars today. The chairman Isaac Townsend, in his opening remarks on December 18, 1856, said: “Let us therefore rest, regardless of the ignorant censure of political and factious demagogues, who easily raise the idle cry of a wasteful expenditure of money. In truth, it would have been a wise economy to have erected a building much larger.

Three-hundred million people died from smallpox in the twentieth century alone. Townsend went on to say:

It must be borne in mind that our metropolitan population is by no means permanent, that its general character is precisely otherwise; there is a moving stream of human existence not exclusively of the poorer classes. And, whether a sufferer from this dire infliction be a poor immigrant, a resident in the Five Points, or a wealthy denizen of the Fifth Avenue;—whether he mingle in the crowd at the Astor or Metropolitan, or occupy the dark damp basement of some wretched lodging-house, in either, in any case, it is equally necessary he should be instantly removed. 

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