On Roosevelt Island

Tear Down the Renwick Smallpox Hospital Ruins

David Stone
Renwick Smallpox Hospital Ruins
Renwick Smallpox Hospital Ruins
Photo credit: Wikipedia Commons

It's close to blasphemy in some Roosevelt Island circles, but common sense demands that we take a hard look at the pile of rubble, known variously as the Renwick Ruins, the Smallpox Hospital or a combination of both, scaring the southend of Southpoint before pouring more hundreds of thousands of dollars into it with no other goal than "public access."

Saving the ruins of the structure designed only partly by acclaimed Nineteenth Century architect James Renwick has been accepted as valuable, without question – or serous thought – by Roosevelt Islanders since residential development began in the mid to late 1970s. It's as if some local heritage explains spending millions without any purpose.

But the half-demolished by nature wreck has never had a role in the modern community, unlike Blackwell House, Chapel of the Good Shepherd or the Lighthouse standing on the edge of Hell Gate.

We should think again. Millions have been poured into the ruin and more is on the way, if it's not diverted to more useful projects.

The ruins were added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1972 and were granted New York City Landmark status four years later. There really wasn't much discussion. Any serious plan for residential development was a decade away, and the public was barred by a high fence from entering the area, better known for the charred remains of a burned out city hospital, for another ten years.

So, call it a "landmark." No one was going to get anywhere near it anyway.

The carelessness in which this action was taken can be seen in the Preservation Commission's remarks at the time: "The Smallpox Hospital could easily become the American equivalent of the great Gothic ruins of England, such as the late 13th century Tintern Abbey in Monmouthshire, which has been admired and cherished since the 18th century as a romantic ruin."

Tintern Abbey? Really?

The abbey is (actually) a Twelfth Century wonder that, rebuilt and fixed up many times, served its original purpose for four hundred years. King Edward stayed there for two nights in in 1326. Gainsborough and Turner painted it. The smallpox hospital, unreinforced, would be lucky to survive the next windstorm, and nobody is setting up easels.

The Daily News dubs it one of the most haunted places in New York City, along with the Octagon. People claim they've seen ghosts. Otherwise, it's a major "So, what?" to the rest of the universe.

A Renwick Legacy

Roosevelt Island, especially in its earlier incarnations as Blackwell's and Welfare Island, was often the most convenient place to offload the city's less attractive elements. The Octagon served as a miserable lunatic asylum. An Almshouse sat approximately where Manhattan Park does now, and the southern part of the island was once a huge penitentiary.

When smallpox continued to ravage New York, even with a vaccine available, Renwick was asked to design a hospital where people could be treated while kept apart from the general population. His Gothic Revival style, 100 bed structure was completed in 1856. It lasted less than twenty years before being converted to other uses and attached to City Hospital, which was located at the north end of what is now Southpoint Park.

Further diluting Renwick's legacy is the frequently ignored fact that two-thirds of the structure finally abandoned over seventy years ago were designed by others.

But if you love Renwick and think his designs are worth preserving, you can do much better with St. Patricks Cathedral on Fifth Avenue, Grace Church on Broadway and the magnificent Smithsonian Building in Washington, D.C., among many others, all still standing, ready to receive your appreciation.

When you stop and think about it though, another fact of historical preservation reality strikes you. Not only is the Renwick Smallpox Hospital Ruin a trivial part of Renwick's work, all that remains of it are walls and a dilapidated stairway or two. The internal elements, the things that make a structure tick and provide meaningful context, are utterly gone.

Why Tear Down the Renwick Ruins?

The more sensible question is, Why not?

The ruins are an eyesore with no rational reason for being. They can't be used for anything, and they are not authentic, complete Renwick designs.

At a recent community meeting where discussions about the future of Southpoint Park took place, someone suggested installing a cafe inside the restored ruins. For over $4.5 million in restoration funding, we'd get a cafe? Credit where credit is due, it was the most useful suggestion for the space.

Shouldn't we pause the momentum long enough to ask whether money is really being well-spent on preserving the ruins? There's so little left, the majority of any restoration will be brand new and who knows how authentic?

Does anyone in a clearheaded moment believe that visitors are going to flock to a restored smallpox hospital that, like much of the lower island is difficult to access? Exactly why would they?

Four Freedoms Park counts on a variety of programs, a world class view of Manhattan, not to mention Long Island City's Pepsi Cola sign, and a memorial to Franklin Delano Roosevelt's speech to pull visitors past the ruins. What does or could the ruins offer in comparison?

Isn't there a better use for all that money than protecting dubious romantic nostalgia?

Wouldn't we better off as a community if the space was given over to nature as the rest of Southpoint is? If we must build something, the money would be better spent on a nature center where children and adults could be hands on with soil and trees.

As a redesign of Southpoint is taking place, there is no better time to reconsider. Let's put common sense in play and think about tearing down those useless ruins and committing to better use of the space.

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