New York Smallpox Hospital- aka ‘Renwick Ruin’

Smallpox Hospital Roosevelt Island

Renwick Ruin at the South end of Roosevelt Island- 2004ish. ©sbethy

Ok, now this is my favorite kind of site. Maybe because it’s spooky or maybe because it’s in NYC all I can say is that in general, I love architectural ruins. I traveled up and down the FDR along the East River for years on trips to visit my grandparents and I never noticed this building.  Once you know it’s there you can’t miss it- it’s not hidden, it just somehow blends in to its environs. I was lucky enough to gain access to the site in (I believe 2004) when it was off limits to the public through Open House NY.  When I found out that there was such an amazing ruin hidden in plain sight, it was a rush of excitement and curiosity.

Architectural ruins are almost more meaningful to me than restored spaces. Think about it, more is left to the imagination with a ruin.  No one has been through the site carefully restoring it to a chosen time period, but rather the mission is to keep the structure sound enough so it doesn’t fall down.  It seems easier to wander the grounds of a site like this and imagine the building in its original form, imagine the patients, the sounds they heard coming from Manhattan and the East River.  Plus for those of us who like spooky, it’s easier to believe that the site is still inhabited by some of its former tenants.

Some History:

  • Constructed in 1856 from designs by James Renwick, Jr. who also designed St. Patrick’s Cathedral
  • Originally constructed for the treatment of that “loathsome malady,” smallpox, New York residents afflicted with the disease were quarantined by law at the hospital on “Blackwell’s Island” (the name of Roosevelt Island at the time).
  • In 1875 the Smallpox Hospital became available to house nurses for a training program after a new hospital for the treatment of smallpox and other contagious diseases was built on North Brothers Island- where Typhoid Mary was quarantined for three years.
  • In 1921, Blackwell’s Island was renamed Welfare Island because of the general nature of its use.
  • In the 1950’s the hospital was abandoned
  • The building was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1972
  • The building was designated a New York City landmark in 1976 (To this day it is the only ‘ruin’ listed)
  • In December of 2007 part of the North facade collapsed

What’s happening now?
Since the collapse in 2007, the Renwick Ruin has been completely stabilized for a low, low cost of $4.5 million dollars and is now open to the public.  The Trust for Public Land oversaw the stabilization which occurred just in time for the construction of Louis I. Kahn’s, Franklin D. Roosevelt Four Freedoms Park which was originally proposed in 1973.


Four Freedoms Park

Final design of Four Freedoms Park with the Smallpox Hospital at the North end. Courtesy of


Smallpox Hopsital, Roosevelt Island, NYC. Courtesy of Roosevelt Island Historic Society.

Information gathered from:
Roosevelt Island Historical Society
Franklin D. Roosevelt Four Freedoms Park
New York Times


About sbethy

I have three college degrees including a Masters in Historic Preservation. Since many people aren't hiring preservationists right now I thought this would be a great outlet to document and hopefully publicize amazing buildings that I believe need attention. Originally from NY and currently living in NJ just over the bridge(s) from Philadlephia most of the places I'll feature will be in these areas. If anyone reading this has any buildings they are curious about or love and want to share, let me know and I'll do a little research, take some photos and you'll see the building highlighted. You'll see that I don't tend to focus on pretty buildings that have been perfectly restored. I tend to be drawn to ones that are more in a state of disrepair or are clearly underutilized. There is something about that aesthetic that I am drawn to and makes me wonder about its history- what was it's function, who worked/lived there, who built it, what happened to it, can it be saved? Also, whenever possible I am going to use all my own photography since I love taking photos as well.
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3 Responses to New York Smallpox Hospital- aka ‘Renwick Ruin’

  1. Alice says:

    Hey Sara, you have a really great website! Dare I say that you have the potential to do for historic preservation what Julie of “Julie and Julia” fame did for French Cooking. . .put it on the movie screen?!?!?

  2. Totally fascinating. Keep it up!!!! I was just in Germany…you wouldn’t believe the amount of restauration going on there.

  3. Andrea says:

    Have you checked out the coffee table book about abandoned state hospitals? I read an article about it a few months back and have wanted to get it. I love old hospitals/psych ward buildings.

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