Roosevelt Island’s Smallpox Hospital
Renwick Smallpox Hospital. Picture: Andre Costantini
To drive up FDR Drive—on Manhattan’s east facet, on a slick chilly night—is to seek out solitude. You edge between island and water like a cell in a vein. To the left, streets attain like facades to a vanishing point. Buildings of stone and steel and glass, illuminated from inside, seem like cave drawings depicting our humanity and its dystopia. Row by row and by the hundreds, individuals in a furious, confused sequence are stacked atop each other. STONE They work or eat or drown within 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 long run, when humanity has built then ruined all the things and itself, when it is left with out need and is poorer for it. It’s not as cynical as it sounds. These are the legendary 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 finish 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 residence 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 handed via, as did Dickens and, later, diplomats seeking a short commute. At present, 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 on this metropolis. It is, subsequently, among the rarest.
The outdated hospital, entangled in vines and red ivy, appears like it is being clawed at by the earth, pulled under. The ground and roof, its beautiful cornices, an ornate cupola, are lengthy gone. They are collected in heaps at the middle, buried, or swept away completely. 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 stay a few faint letters. The bell turret lists. Inside, brick partitions and archways look moments from turning to dust. The north wall has vanished; the other walls are held up by metallic bracing, though if one appears closely, the exterior is leaning out of plumb several inches (it will probably only be viewed from beyond a fence). Looking at photos of it in its original form is like looking at a young photograph of an outdated 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 entire cost of the construction was thirty-eight thousand dollars, roughly the equivalent of a million dollars as we speak. 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 elevate 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.”
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 in no way 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 must be instantly eliminated. His presence, as we effectively know, wouldn’t 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 fast. You both recovered from smallpox or you didn’t. Its heart constructing is made fully, from entrance 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 college. These later architects selected to match the unique 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 Company for ninety-nine years to manage its growth. Philip Johnson and John Burgee developed an architectural master plan, recommending “selective rehabilitation” to seven buildings, together with the Smallpox Hospital, resulting in the constructing being recognized, in 1970, as a possible landmark. It was listed within 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.”
Although a partial masonry stabilization challenge 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 weather. 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 venture for many years.
An aerial view of Roosevelt Island, with the FDR memorial going through the damage. Photograph: Steve Amiaga
Kahn’s sober, immense stone monument is astonishingly lovely, especially on a brilliant, chilly day. It sits atop landfill laid to seamlessly extend the island. Schist borders its shoreline. Guests 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 aspect 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 may be seen and felt in high-quality 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 damage. 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 by one-inch slits between its twelve-foot-high rectangular granite pillars. Six ft thick, they are lower so exactly as to appear otherworldly. But they are brought back by those effective scars mentioned earlier, left by diamond wire saw. These are the only stones of the monument which are polished, lending the room subtle refractions of gentle, 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 when it had been to melt into the bottom tomorrow, there it could still be, a “ruin in reverse,” as he as soon as mentioned 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 part of the hospital’s renovation to Walter B. Melvin Architects, a agency that specializes in the restoration of exterior masonry. “There is a respect between the outdated 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. That is a very clear instance of that.”
Contained in 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 element as is embedded inside nice work types junctions: science and artwork, historical past and progress, civilization and demise. What number of died right here, at this magnificent hospital, in nice ache For an architectural agency whose portfolio contains restoration of some of recent York’s most interesting 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 historical past that radiates from structure. That’s what we preserve,” stated Bates.
The restoration will value over thirty million dollars, and is in its very initial phases. The firm completed the schematic design section with a survey, an orthorectified scan of the building, and emergency stabilization. Bates even took drone footage of the inside. Elements of the construction are very tremendous, like the where to buy cheap stone island jeans joint work. Others are flawed, just like the keying and the warren of ventilation shafts throughout the interior walls, which weakened the construction significantly. To save lots of the constructing, the agency should deconstruct it and put it collectively once more, with the help of schist donated by close by Cornell.
Some residents of the island wish to see the building torn down, replaced with one thing practical, that may inspire income. Preservationists and potential donors see the building’s potential for public entry, possibly whilst a live performance corridor, although this could be difficult considering its landmarked status as a ruin. The firm awaits news from a half-million-dollar grant proposal to provoke the second section: drawing development paperwork, the detailed written and illustrated plans of how to save lots of the constructing.
On the opening, Townsend concluded: “In a few short years, each of us who this day exchange our congratulations upon having unitedly completed this helpful work, should move away … We’d that each citizen would possibly increase 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 identification Mustn’t we face it: the weathered, weighty previous come to shake us of our hubris by reminding us of our progress, and destiny
The cab hydroplanes on the FDR. Your head snaps from left to right. There it is, the break, floodlit.
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