The Ruin: Roosevelt Island’s Smallpox Hospital

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Renwick Smallpox Hospital. Photo: Andre Costantini

To drive up FDR Drive—on Manhattan’s east side, on a slick cold night—is to find solitude. You edge between island and water like a cell in a vein. To the left, streets reach like facades to a vanishing point. Buildings of stone and steel and glass, illuminated from within, look like cave drawings depicting our humanity and its dystopia. Row by row and by the thousands, people in a furious, confused sequence are stacked atop one another. They work or eat or drown in the blue light of televisions. The city is illuminated like it’s the world’s carnival, and this can inspire an isolating sentimentality of being abandoned to the future, when humanity has built then ruined everything and itself, when it is left without want and is poorer for it. It is not as cynical as it sounds. These are the mythical happenings that bind you to this place by their sheer wild or gentle force. This is a place alive.

So consumed might you be by this turning shadowbox of life to the west that you might miss, despite the flood lights, the ruin to the east: a mid-nineteenth-century stone hospital across the river, at the southern end of Roosevelt Island. Designed by the venerable James Renwick Jr., the crumbling building is a federal, state, and city landmark that has sat, decaying, for decades opposite ever-ascendant Manhattan. Because it was landmarked in 1976 as a ruin, to wither is its fate.

The development of the island—Cornell’s technological campus glisters just to the north of the smallpox hospital; a boutique hotel is set to open in 2019; nine twenty-story apartment buildings have been developed along the river—belies its sordid history. Formerly Blackwell’s Island, it was once host to an insane asylum (occupied now by bold tenants), a penitentiary, several hospitals, a quarry. Blackwell’s was a municipal quarantine for New York’s derelict, criminal, and insane. Vagrants, paupers, and investigative journalists passed through, as did Dickens and, later, diplomats seeking a short commute. Today, the island’s narrow southern stretch, from the top of South Point Park to the blunt end of the FDR memorial, is perhaps the least excessive place in this city. It is, therefore, among the rarest.

Courtesy 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.

Courtesy New York City Municipal Archives.

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. His presence, as we well know, would not fail as effectually to generate and spread the pestilence, whether he lay on a bed of filthy rags and straw, or a gilded and carpeted room on a bed of the softest down.

The hospital accommodated about a hundred patients at a time, and its turnover was rapid. You either recovered from smallpox or you didn’t. Its center building is made entirely, from front to back, of the island’s own schist rock, quarried, cut, dressed, and laid by prisoners of the penitentiary. The south and north wings were added in 1903 and 1904 respectively to accommodate the building’s new mandate: a nursing school. Those later architects chose to match the original design closely—in homage to Renwick—giving the building its grand, decayed uniformity.

Courtesy New York City Municipal Archives.

Around 1956, the building was abandoned. In 1969, the entire island was leased to the New York Development Corporation for ninety-nine years to manage its development. Philip Johnson and John Burgee developed an architectural master plan, recommending “selective rehabilitation” to seven buildings, including the Smallpox Hospital, leading to the building being identified, in 1970, as a potential landmark. It was listed in the National Register of Historic Places in 1973, and in 1976 it was declared a landmark, “a romantic and picturesque ruin, evoking memories of the past.”

Though a partial masonry stabilization project was undertaken in the early seventies, and another in the midnineties, and a further one after the collapse of the north wall in the winter of 2007, the building’s deterioration was brutally accelerated by constant exposure to the elements. This continues to be the case.

In 2012, the FDR memorial directly adjacent to the hospital was finally completed, thirty-eight years after its architect, Louis Kahn, approaching penury, died of a heart attack in Penn Station with the drawings in his briefcase. The bankruptcy of the city had halted the project for decades.

An aerial view of Roosevelt Island, with the FDR memorial facing the ruin. Photo: Steve Amiaga

Kahn’s sober, immense stone monument is astonishingly beautiful, especially on a bright, cold day. It sits atop landfill laid to seamlessly extend the island. Schist borders its shoreline. Visitors ascend through a monumental staircase, past a row of copper beech trees. The width of the stairs precisely matches the width of the hospital’s southern wall. They are in concert—a salute. On either side of the staircase, white granite stone (from Mount Airy, North Carolina) alights to a sharp point at the base. In the scale of the monument, one senses Kahn’s travels to Egypt and Greece. The massive cuts of stone are smooth and breathlessly precise but unpolished; the mason’s hand can be seen and felt in fine scars along its surface.

Sloped to a tip, the triangular lawn above is flanked by a hundred and fifty little leaf lindens. At the end of the lawn, Roosevelt’s immense bust floats like a humble god, his eyes tired. Their view is a perfectly framed stone ruin. On the other side of his throne are etched his “four freedoms” (of speech and religion, from want and fear). It is the only adornment in what Kahn called “the room,” a stone gallery that directs the visitor to look only up or forward or through one-inch slits between its twelve-foot-high rectangular granite pillars. Six feet thick, they are cut so exactly as to seem otherworldly. But they are brought back by those fine scars mentioned earlier, left by diamond wire saw. These are the only stones of the monument that are polished, lending the room subtle refractions of light, as on a mirror’s edge.

“The walls parted and the columns became,” Stephen Martin, the director of the Four Freedoms Park Conservancy’s design and planning, said, quoting Kahn on Paestum, the Greek city of ruins. With this monument, Kahn immortalized the hospital anew. Even if it were to melt into the ground tomorrow, there it would still be, a “ruin in reverse,” as he once said of his buildings.

In 2015, three years after the completion of the Franklin D. Roosevelt Four Freedoms Park, the conservancy conducted a structural conditions survey of the hospital and awarded the schematic design phase of the hospital’s renovation to Walter B. Melvin Architects, a firm that specializes in the restoration of exterior masonry. “There is a respect between the old buildings and new across New York,” Robert Bates, the firm’s principal-in-charge of the project, told me. “It’s as if they are encouraging each other to keep going. This is a particularly clear example of that.”

Inside the Renwick Smallpox Hospital.

Bates indicated what was originally the building’s stone plinth course, the first level of the building meant to be seen. Initially pronounced, it is now buried. “Like an embankment, it provided security to those within it,” he said. Such architectural detail as is embedded within great work forms junctions: science and art, history and progress, civilization and death. How many died here, at this magnificent hospital, in great pain? For an architectural firm whose portfolio includes restoration of some of New York’s finest architecture—the Jewish Museum, the Cloisters, Grace Church, the Public Library, the Queensboro Bridge, to name a few—this project is one of legacy. “There is a richness of history that radiates from architecture. That is what we preserve,” said Bates.

The restoration will cost over thirty million dollars, and is in its very initial phases. The firm completed the schematic design phase with a survey, an orthorectified scan of the building, and emergency stabilization. Bates even took drone footage of the interior. Parts of the structure are very fine, like the joint work. Others are flawed, like the keying and the warren of ventilation shafts within the interior walls, which weakened the structure significantly. To save the building, the firm will have to deconstruct it and put it together again, with the aid of schist donated by nearby Cornell.

Some residents of the island would like to see the building torn down, replaced with something practical, that will inspire revenue. Preservationists and potential donors see the building’s potential for public access, maybe even as a concert hall, though this would be difficult considering its landmarked status as a ruin. The firm awaits news from a half-million-dollar grant proposal to initiate the second phase: drawing construction documents, the detailed written and illustrated plans of how to save the building.

At the opening, Townsend concluded: “In a few short years, each of us who this day exchange our congratulations upon having unitedly accomplished this useful work, must pass away … We would that every citizen might raise for himself a monument in some new institution, destined to carry down to future ages the blessings of a progressive civilization.”

This hospital and our civilization, he suggests, are indissolubly bound. Aren’t such ruins the ensnared root of our identity? Mustn’t we face it: the weathered, weighty past come to shake us of our hubris by reminding us of our progress, and fate?

The cab hydroplanes on the FDR. Your head snaps from left to right. There it is, the ruin, floodlit.

Selin Thomas is a writer in New York.

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