Smallpox has a reputation as one of the worst diseases in history: it spreads quickly through the human population and kills about one-third of those infected. Smallpox had killed millions since it first swirled out of ancient Egypt. Some experts say that over the centuries it has killed more people than all other infectious diseases combined. The disease killed Louis XV of France and other European monarchs. Queen Elizabeth I had the disease as a child and wore heavy make-up to conceal her pockmarks.
Renwick Smallpox Hospital opened its doors in 1856 on Roosevelt Island, the stretch of land on the East River between Manhattan and Queens was once known as Welfare Island because of its hospitals and institutional buildings. Now Roosevelt Island is accessible from Manhattan via tramway , subway and ferry . There is a bridge connecting Roosevelt Island and Queens.
But back in 1800 the island was very remote. In colonial days, the Blackwell family, prosperous neighbors from across the river in Queens, owned Roosevelt Island , where they farmed and quarried. In the early 1800s the family sought to sell the island, and around 1825 it was purchased by the City of New York.
Although vaccination against smallpox was a common medical practice by the mid-19th century, the disease continued to plague New York City. The distance between the island and New York City made it a perfect quarantine area for patients infected with smallpox.
So when the hospital was open in 1856 it was completely cordoned off from the rest of the area by waterways. Hospital was built by American architect James Renwick Jr ., one of the most successful American architects of his time.
When he was only 25 years old, he received his first major commission when he won the competition to design Grace Church in New York City. Three years later Renwick won the competition for the design of the Smithsonian Institution Building in Washington, DC. His finest achievement, and his best-known building is St. Patrick's Cathedral, New York, on the corner of Fifth Avenue and 51st Street.
The total cost of the construction of the hospital 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.”
The Smallpox Hospital accommodated one hundred patients with charity cases in wards on the lower floors, while a series of private rooms on the upper floors was devoted for paying patients.
The hospital treated 7,000 patients annually, and roughly 450 would die each year. That means that upwards of 13.5 thousand deaths due to smallpox happened within the walls of the Renwick during its 30 years as a hospital.
In 1875 the patients with smallpox other contagious diseases were transferred to the new building built on North Brothers Island , located in New York City's East River between the Bronx and Rikers Island. North Brother Island is now uninhabited and designated as a bird sanctuary.
Renwick Smallpox Hospital was converted into a home for the nurses as well as the Maternity and Charity Hospital Training School. This transition also reduced the danger of the disease spreading to Blackwell’s Island population, which by the end of the century numbered some seven thousand.
The school in the 1950’s was relocated to new buildings in Queens. The main hospital building as well as the former Smallpox Hospital were abandoned.
The ruins were added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1972 and were granted New York City Landmark status four years later. Currently, you're not able to go inside as it's not structurally sound and there is a fence which surrounds it. The Gothic Revival architectural style does add to its beauty and mysteriousness.