New York City is a metropolis with a seemingly infinite amount of history. Through the years, New York City has accumulated a multitude of venues with interesting and impressive pasts. Locales such as St. Patrick’s Cathedral, Times Square and The Empire State Building have become famous symbols of New York City; however, there is much more to New York than these romanticized structures. Many places in New York City, while beautiful, have surprisingly dark histories. One example is the Renwick Ruin, a former smallpox hospital on Roosevelt Island. This smallpox hospital heavily impacted the medical history of post-bellum New York City as well as showcased James Renwick Jr.’s architectural genius.
Renwick Ruin is a site with an enormous amount of history. The ghastly remains of this building have hid in plain sight on picturesque Roosevelt Island for decades. The Smallpox Hospital, as it was known, housed a treatment center for victims of contagious diseases during the 1860’s and continued to do so until the mid 1880’s, when it closed. According to Neil Tandon, a historian for the New York City Historical Society, it opened its doors in 1865 and was the first medical center in the United States to accept victims of dangerous infectious diseases, such as smallpox, plague and yellow fever. Also, this hospital was one of the first public hospitals to accept patients largely pro-bono. (Tandon). This was a revolutionary concept for its time because most hospitals did not work for free. Additionally, they did not accept patients with extremely contagious disease because of the risk of infecting the rest of the patients in the hospital.
In addition to serving as a hospital for those with incredibly infectious diseases, the hospital served as a quarantine center for New York City during the smallpox outbreak of 1865. Author Harry Filmore Dowling explained in his book City Hospitals: the Undercare of the Underprivileged, that if one was suspected of having an infectious disease in New York City, then he or she was banished to the hospital because it was believed believed that if a sick individual was in the presence of a healthy one, the healthy individual would automatically contract the illness (Filmore 58). The belief that quarantining sick individuals on an island separate from the main population was not a bad idea; however, this quarantine often caused many unnecessary deaths because the doctors of the day were not knowledgeable about the true nature of many ailments. For instance, the lack of knowledge in medicine during the 1800’s is shown by their treatment of patients with yellow fever. Physicians in the 1800’s believed that yellow fever victims were a danger to society because of the infectious nature of the disease. Now, through modern research, we know that people who were diagnosed with the fever had no need to be quarantined because it is not contagious from human to human. According to the National Institute of Health, yellow fever is transmitted via mosquitoes (NIH). Since the illness cannot be transmitted through human-to-human contact, being in close proximity to someone with yellow fever is not dangerous, so separating yellow fever patients from the general population was pointless. In fact, grouping yellow fever victims at the Smallpox Hospital was dangerous because they were at a higher risk of contracting a disease that was truly contagious, such as smallpox. The National Institute of Heath reports that smallpox is incredibly contagious and has killed more people that all the other world diseases combined (NIH). Forcefully placing patients in close proximity to victims affected with this extremely deadly disease perfectly illustrates the flaws in public health during the mid to late 1800’s and the negative impact it had on the denizens of New York City.
Furthermore, the lack of sanitary conditions in the hospitals also illustrated the faults in the public health system in the nineteenth century. Before the inception of germ theory in the late 1800’s, medical practitioners were unaware of how pathogenic entities worked. This disconnect downplayed the concept of hygiene as we understand it today. Most hospitals at the time were notoriously unsanitary, which led to the decline in the physical and emotional wellbeing of patients. Medical historian John Duffy wrote in his publication Rudolph Matas History of Medicine in Louisiana, Volume 2 about a man who was quarantined in a smallpox hospital in Louisiana similar to the hospital in New York:
In one instance, a wealthy New Yorker who caught smallpox once while visiting in New Orleans reported he was sent to the smallpox hospital, undressed, and placed on a filthy mattress. ‘Not a doctor came near me to see what was the matter,’ he declared. ‘For seven days I laid flat upon my back in unspeakable filth and overpowering stench and putrid decaying flesh’. (Duffy 519)
The poor treatment of patients and appalling atmosphere in hospitals during this time dramatically impacted the recovery of sick individuals. Hospitals are supposed to facilitate the healing of the sick; if one is lying in his own filth while waiting to be seen by a doctor, there is little to no chance of a speedy and successful recovery.
While the Smallpox Hospital eventually closed, the building still actively participated in New York’s public health system. According to Neil Tandon, the Smallpox Hospital was renamed and turned into a training hospital for nurses in the New York City area (Tandon). This medical instruction center prepared dozens of nurses that worked all over New York City. Even after its closure, Renwick Ruin still managed to be beneficial to the populous of New York City and towards the advancement of medical professionals in New York.
Another element that adds to the historical importance of the Smallpox Hospital is its physical structure. The building was designed by world famous architect James Renwick Jr., who designed famous buildings such as the Smithsonian in Washington, D.C,. and St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York City. Historian Diana S. Waite wrote in her book Architects in Albany that he designed an abundance of buildings throughout New York and that his work was heavily influenced by the neo-gothic style (Waite 7). The work of this extremely talented architect deserves to be preserved, no matter what the building he designed was used for. The Smallpox Hospital illustrates Renwick’s artistic point of view and contributes to the dynamic architectural diversity of New York City.
Despite the role that this hospital played in the building of New York City, one might believe that the ruins are a well-known location; however, few people are aware of this edifice. This lack of attention paid to the historic site is disheartening, as its melancholic past needs to be preserved. Unfortunately, there are not many organizations are interested in facilitating the repair of this site. According to Neil Tandon, all that exists of the former site is a roofless pile of stone. The building is overrun with plant life and is almost completely degraded (Tandon). The state of disrepair that Renwick Ruin is in is a shame because of all the history it contained within its dilapidated walls. The ruin should be fully restored, so the public could see and learn all the details of its morose background, as well as admire the remarkable architecture of James Renwick Jr.
Fortunately, some efforts are being made to preserve this site. Tandon wrote that in 1975, philanthropist Georgio Cavaglieri donated his time and money to stabilize the remains and fence the property surrounding the ruins to shut out intruders (Tandon). While these improvements helped preserve the ruins, more progress needs to be made. If the remains were completely reconstructed, a museum focusing on the history of infectious disease could be built. In addition, the rebuilt structure would serve as a tribute to the beautiful architecture of James Renwick Jr. Renovating of this site has countless benefits to the city of New York, from both an academic and cultural standpoint. Allowing this site to decay is senseless and a waste of a beautiful structure with a dark story to tell.
Dowling, Harry F. City Hospitals: the Undercare of the Underprivileged. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 1982. Print.
Duffy, John. Rudolph Matas History of Medicine in Louisiana, Volume 2. Birmingham: Vail-Ballous Press. 1962. Print.
“Smallpox: MedlinePlus.” National Library of Medicine- National Institutes of Heath. U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, 26 Oct. 2011. Web. 6 Dec. 2011.
Tandon, Neil. “NYCHS Presents Neil Tandon and Roosevelt Island Historical Society’s Historical Walk — Smallpox Hospital.” NY Correction History Society. Roosevelt Island Historical Society, 2000. Web. 1 Dec 2011.
Waite, Diana S. Architects in Albany. Albany, NY: Mount Ida, 2009. Print.
“Yellow Fever: Medline Plus.” National Library of Medicine- National Institutes of Heath. U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, 7 Nov. 2011. Web. 6 Dec 2011.