NYC Oddities: Smallpox Hospital Ruins

Non-native New Yorkers might remember the nighttime cab ride down the FDR when they first saw it, the lit-up horror story-esque building on Roosevelt Island. At night, the decidedly out-of-place structure is eery and hauntingly beautiful, a relic framed by modernity from every vantage point.

It’s been a favorite of mine ever since I discovered it years ago. I had pressed my face to the window of the cab trying to decipher exactly what it was I was seeing, amazed that an old, gutted, romantic edifice could have been preserved intact on an island in the middle of the East River. That it was illuminated for dramatic effect made it that much more compelling.

The stone Gothic Revival structure was designed by James Renwick, Jr. and completed in 1856 on then Blackwell’s Island. It served as a smallpox hospital during a time when the disease was still an epidemic in New York City. The hospital’s location allowed for easier quarantine of infected patients.

In 1976 the ruin was declared a landmark by the New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission. After a section of the northern facade crumbled in 2007, $4.5 million was delegated to preserve the structure and prevent further collapse, according to the New York Times.

The site, also know as the Renwick Ruin, sits at the northern edge of the recently completed FDR Four Freedoms Park. The building is set to become the park’s visitors center. I paid a visit on a recent picturesque afternoon, noting how blue skies and sunlight created an incongruous scene. The ruin begs for twilight or ominous cloud-cover.

The ruins on a recent afternoon

The ruins on a recent afternoon


A close-up nighttime view of the former hospital in 2007, before the recent preservation efforts

(Image via ejimford,; made available under Creative Commons license)


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