Driving on the 59th Street Bridge, you pass over Roosevelt Island, that strip of land between Manhattan and Queens. The northern tip of the island is home to a lighthouse and a small park and its middle section is a concentration of high-rises.
By contrast, a tall fence decorated with “No Trespassing” sign forbids access to the southern portion of the island. On the other side of the fence, there are trees, a paved road, and a second fence surrounding Renwick Ruins, the crumbling façade of a former Smallpox Hospital.
After years of being teased by the ominous ruins, my friends and I decided to go for it: we planned a trip to explore the Smallpox Hospital.
Previously known as Blackwell’s and Welfare Island, Roosevelt Island was home to correctional facilities, hospitals and asylums. Built in 1856, the Smallpox Hospital served a number of functions before being closed a century later when the City Hospital complex of which it was a part moved to Queens. A number of institutions on the island closed or moved away leaving the Smallpox Hospital to deteriorate. It was designated a historical site by the Landmark Preservation Commission in the 1960s.
Taking the tram from Manhattan onto Roosevelt, my friends and I wondered how we would get into the hospital. We knew about the fence, but we didn’t know if it would be easy to get around it or if there was regular surveillance of the area.
We tried our best to act like we weren’t up to no good as we walked along the path that encircles the island. We picked flowers from the blossoming trees and pointed at the seagulls posing offshore atop jutting pier pilings.
We reached the fence—the gate was wide open and there was no one looking so we just strolled right in. A bit further on, we reached Renwick Ruins, named for the hospital’s designer, James Renwick, Jr.
There were spotlights pointed towards the Ruins and another set of signs on the inner fence warning against trespassing and the possibility of collapsing walls. We ignored the signs and jumped the fence. We had made it!
Only the outer walls of the Smallpox Hospital remain. The collapsed interior was visible through hollow window openings. We walked into the center, climbing over piles of bricks and tiptoeing across what we hoped were sturdy pipes.
Midtown and Queens softly glowed in the misty air as we explored the graffiti-covered walls and walked across floors littered with crushed beer cans.
We left the hospital and hopped another fence to look at the now-defunct 53rd Street emergency subway station. The city wants to reopen the station for the E and V lines.
Unlike the planned community and manicured paths to its north, Renwick Ruins stands as a stark reminder of Roosevelt Island’s storied past.
Nadia Chaudhury is a former Layout Editor for the Rail.