You can see it lit up from the the FDR. The hauntingly beautiful Neo-Gothic Renwick Ruins have been illuminated nightly since 1995, in an effort to raise funds to stabilize the structure.
Built in 1854, the hospital was the first in the country dedicated to the care of smallpox victims. Later, it served as a school for nurses.
The City gave landmark status to the ruin 40 years ago, just 11 years after Mayor Robert F. Wagner, Jr., established the Landmarks Preservation Commission in 1965.
James Renwick, Jr. (1818-1895), was one of New York’s most fashionable and successful architects. He designed many buildings in New York City, three of which were also designated New York City Landmarks: Grace Church, St. Patrick’s Cathedral, and the William E. Dodge villa (now the Greyston Conference Center in the Bronx).
The Smallpox hospital was not the only building he designed on the Island. As Supervising Architect for the Commission of Charities, he also designed the Workhouse, the Lighthouse, and the Charity Hospital. Of those, only the Lighthouse remains.
New York City began vaccinating against smallpox in 1801, but by 1850, due to an increasing unvaccinated immigrant population here, the virus was still responsible for 25.4 out of every 1000 deaths.
On April 1, 1854, construction began on the first American hospital dedicated to smallpox victims, the Smallpox Hospital on the south end of Roosevelt Island. The construction took two years; inmates held in the Island’s prisons helped.
On December 18, 1856, the hospital was complete at the cost of $38,000. Patients moved in on January 3 of the following year. In 1875 the Smallpox Hospital was renamed Riverside Hospital and began to serve a broader community of patients.
By 1886, the hospital was converted into a nursing school, the Home for the Nurses of the Maternity and Charity Hospital Training School. Between 1903 and 1905, northern and southern wings were added to the building. But by the mid-1950’s the structure was abandoned. It started deteriorating in the 1960’s and by the end of that decade, it showed extensive plaster and water damage as well as debris and vegetation on the inside.
Despite this, the Ruin was included in a preliminary list of Welfare Island structures deemed worthy of preservation by New York City’s Landmark Preservation Commission. In 1970, the New York Urban Development Corporation hired architect Georgio Cavaglieri to assess the hospital. He ordered removal of non-load-bearing walls, stabilization of load-bearing walls and removal of the roof.
On March 16, 1972, the Ruin was designated a national landmark by the National Register of Historic Places. New York City landmark status came in 1976. State landmark status came in 1980.
The Designation Report
The people who nominated the Smallpox Hospital for landmark status clearly had plans for what the surrounding area would look like, and the impact the beautiful ruin could have in creating a specific kind of park setting.
The report said, “The Smallpox Hospital could easily become the American equivalent of the great Gothic ruins of England, such as the late 13th century Tintern Abbey in Monmouthshire, which has been admired and cherished since the 18th century as a romantic ruin.
“Plans have been made to transform the southern tip of Roosevelt Island into a park; ruins in park settings were so much enjoyed in Europe in the 18th century that small ‘garden fabrics,’ which were purely ornamental structures, were actually built ‘in ruins on various estates.
“The Smallpox Hospital in park surroundings would be of comparable picturesque interest. Paul Zucker in Fascination of Decay (1968) stated that ruins can be ‘…an expression of an eerie romantic mood... a palpable documentation of a period in the past... something which recalls a specific concept of architectural space and proportion.’ The Smallpox Hospital possesses all these evocative qualities.”