Lost Hospital — The Renwick Smallpox Hospital, Roosevelt Island, New York1

Smallpox is an infectious disease unique to humans. The term “smallpox” was first used in Europe in the fifteenth century as a way to distinguish this disease from the epidemic of syphilis.

Smallpox killed an estimated 400,000 Europeans each year by the end of the eighteenth century. As recently as 1967, the World Health Organization (WHO) estimated that 15 million people contracted the disease, and two million had died as a result.

The Renwick Smallpox Hospital (later the Maternity and Charity Hospital Training School) was located on Roosevelt Island in New York City.  When Renwick Smallpox Hospital opened on December 18, 1856 on Blackwell’s Island (the island’s name at the time), the hospital could treat 100 patients.

Designed in the style of Gothic Revival, the Smallpox Hospital was strategically positioned in an undeveloped area at the southern tip of the island. The facility was a three-story, “U-shaped” structure complete with two large wings and a front façade at the center. All of the windows on top floor had distinguishing pointed arches rather than curves.

Even with the smallpox vaccine, New York City had large outbreaks, in part due to the large immigrant population travelling to the New World. Before the Smallpox Hospitals, victims of the disease received care in what was described as “a pile of poor wooden out houses on the banks of the river.” Renwick Smallpox Hospital’s remote location was chosen to isolate and quarantine patients, but due to the seriousness of the disease, the hospital had both a large charity ward (on the lower floors) as well as private rooms (on the top floor).

In 1875, the Renwick Smallpox Hospital closed, and with its affiliation to City Hospital, it became a training center for nurses (and later renamed Charity Hospital). The hospital focused on academic training after a new hospital was built on North Brothers Island to treat smallpox and other similar diseases. Between 1903 and1905  the two wings were added to the Renwick facility to accommodate the school, officially renamed the Home for the Nurses and the Maternity and Charity Hospital Training School.

In 1921 Blackwell’s Island was renamed Welfare Island. Over the years, many of the buildings began to deteriorate into total disrepair. In the 1950s, both Charity Hospital and the nursing school were closed, and these operations moved to a new location in Queens, New York.

In 1972, the Renwick Smallpox Hospital was added to the National Register of Historic Places, even though the buildings were basically ruins. In 1973, Welfare Island was renamed Roosevelt Island (in honor of Franklin D. Roosevelt).

Over the years the famous and historically designated neo-Gothic ruins were illuminated at night in an attempt to raise money for the facility. Unfortunately, on December 26, 2007, part of the north wing collapsed, escalating the need to complete the upgrade. Finally, on May 28, 2009, renovations began to stabilize the Smallpox Hospital, including the addition of a memorial to Franklin D. Roosevelt, and a 14- public area.

With a cost of about $4.5 million, the Renwick Smallpox Hospital ruins were opened to the public. The old Renwick Smallpox Hospital is New York City’s only ruin that remains an official landmark, and it has  subway and aerial tram access to and from Manhattan.


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