This is the Roosevelt Island Smallpox Hospital, also known as the Renwick Ruin. A New York City Landmark, the hospital opened in 1856 on what was then Blackwell’s Island. It served as a 100-bed hospital for smallpox patients for about twenty years. It was then turned into a training hospital for nurses until it was abandoned in the 1950’s.
The hospital was designed by James Renwick Jr. Renwick was also the architect of St. Patrick’s Cathedral in Manhattan as well as many other churches and buildings in New York and across the country. Renwick is considered one of the most successful American architects of his time.
Roosevelt Island is a small island on New York City’s East River between Manhattan and Queens. It’s about two miles long and barely 800 feet wide. The island has gone by many names in the last 400 years. It was first used as a hunting ground by the Canarsie Indians. They called it Minnahannock. After the Dutch settled in what is now New York City the island was purchased with beads by the Dutch Governor, Wouter van Twiller, from the Canarsie and renamed Hog Island (Varkens Eiland in Dutch). He used it to raise pigs. Within a couple of decades the island was seized by British Captain John Manning. He renamed it Manning Island. After surrendering to the Dutch eight years later he was dismissed for his cowardice. He retired to Manning Island where he spent his days in a drunken exile. The island then passed down to his stepdaughter and her husband, Robert Blackwell. They renamed it Blackwell’s Island. For the next 142 years it was passed down through the Blackwell family. However, during the revolutionary war it was occupied by the British (they kept their American prisoners of war on the island).
The Blackwell family sold the island to the City of New York for $32,500 is 1828. That’s not even $700,000 in today’s money (though it is quite a bit more than a couple of beads). While the city kept the name Blackwell’s Island it went from a pleasant private property to an island primarily made up of hospitals and a prison and its reputation began to go downhill. After a while, in an attempt to improve the islands reputation the city renamed the island Welfare Island. They probably could have done better. In 1973 they did renaming it Roosevelt Island after President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, a native New Yorker and descendant of one of the oldest families in New York.
Roosevelt Island is a short tram or subway ride from Manhattan but it feels a world away. It is incredibly quiet with spectacular views of New York City. Well worth a visit, whether you want to take in the views of the Manhattan skyline or Roosevelt Island itself or just escape the hectic city for a little while.
For more information on the Roosevelt Island Smallpox Hospital and Roosevelt Island itself visit the Roosevelt Island Historical Society’s website.
You can view more photos from my visit to Roosevelt Island on my Pinterest page.