Snapshot of History: Smallpox Hospital

Roosevelt Island’s half-dozen landmarks give it a special place in the history of New York City, health care, and health education.  The city’s only landmarked ruin, the Smallpox Hospital, has a rich history.

A 1976 report by the city’s Landmarks Preservation Commission called it “a romantic and picturesque ruin, evoking memories of the past.”  One of New York’s most prominent 19th century architects, James Renwick, Jr., designed the building.  A fuller history of the building, with special recognition for Renwick, is now online, in cooperation with the Roosevelt Island Historical Society.

1828 - Blackwell Island

The City of New York purchases Blackwell Island in the East River as a site for prisons and hospitals.

1801 - Virus Spreads

New York City begins vaccinating against the smallpox virus in 1801, but by 1850, the virus is responsible for more than 25 out of every 1,000 deaths.

1854 - Smallpox Hospital

On April 1, construction begins on the Smallpox Hospital at the southernmost point of Blackwell Island.  It will be the first major U.S. hospital dedicated to the care of victims of smallpox.  Construction will take two years to complete.

1856 - Hospital Opens

In December, the hospital, designed by architect James Renwick Jr., opens.  His other New York City designs include St. Patrick’s Cathedral and the liighthouse at the northern tip of Roosevelt Island.

1875 - Hospital Renamed

The New York Board of Health assumes control, and the hospital is renamed Riverside Hospital as it begins to serve a broader community of sick patients.

1886 - Converted to a Nursing School

Riverside Hospital closes.  Patients are relocated to hospitals on North Brother Island.  The building is stripped to bare walls, rebuilt, and converted to the Home for the Nurses of the Maternity and Charity Hospital Training School.

1895 - James Renwick, Jr. Dies

1903 - New Wings

South and north wings add classrooms, dormitories, and training wards.

1921 - Welfare Island

Blackwell Island is renamed Welfare Island.

1950 - Structure Abandoned

The structure is abandoned.  Landfill and debris from ongoing New York City demolition projects begins to be deposited just south of the southernmost wing of the building.  Over the course of the next 30 years, Welfare Island grows southward by about five acres.

1960 - Structure Deteriorates

In the 1960s, the structure begins to deteriorate.

1970 - Attempts at Structural Stabilization

New York State Urban Development Corporation hires architect Giorgio Cavaglieri to structurally stabilize seven historic landmark structures on Welfare Island; Large timber supports are placed at oriel windows to prevent collapse.

1972 - National Landmark

The ruin is designated a National Landmark by the National Register of Historic Places.

1973 - Island Renamed

On September 24, Welfare Island is renamed Franklin D. Roosevelt Island.

1976 - Designated a City Landmark

The building is designated a New York City Landmark by the Landmarks Preservation Commission.

1995 - Illumination

In February, Friends of the Roosevelt Island Landmarks, led by Arnold Scaasi and Kitty Carlisle Hart, install floodlights at the base of the structure to illuminate its exterior walls so it is visible at night from the Manhattan shoreline.

1999 - Development Attempt

Developers propose a hotel and conference center and meet community resistance.  The proposal dies.  Meantime, proponents of the Louis Kahn-designed park memorializing FDR continue to struggle with fundraising for what will become Four Freedoms Park.

2007 - More Deterioration

On December 26, a winter snowstorm brings down a large section of the north wall.  In 2008, the Roosevelt Island Operating Corporation and the Trust for Public Land fund bracing to preserve the state of the ruin.

2011 - Southpoint Park Opens

2012 - Franklin D. Roosevelt Four Freedoms Park Opens

2014 - Construction of the Cornell Tech Campus Begins

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