Sunday, April 20, 2014

Abandoned Places: Renwick Smallpox Hospital

A couple of weeks ago, one of my boys had strep throat. We don't tend to give much thought to how serious strep actually is anymore because it's so easily treated. Seriously, antibiotics knock that sucker right out, but untreated it can lead to rheumatic fever, scarlet fever, and toxic shock syndrome (which is fatal), among a few other things. It's nasty stuff, and, as a father, I am entirely grateful to medical science that has allowed us things such as antibiotics.

And a vaccination against smallpox. I think we have a disconnect about how horrible smallpox was and why there was a need for special hospitals just for smallpox victims. At one time, over 80% of children infected with smallpox died. Just in the 20th century (and that wasn't that long ago), up to 500,000,000 (yes, 500 million) people died from smallpox, most of them children.

Renwick Smallpox Hospital (named for the original architect, James Renwick, Jr.) opened in the remote Blackwell's Island area of New York City in 1856. However, the area became a nesting ground for other publicly supported institutions (like a prison and an insane asylum) and became too crowded for a smallpox facility. By 1886, all of the smallpox patients had been shifted to North Brother Island and the hospital had gone to other uses.

By the 1950s, the structures in the area, including Renwick Hospital, were closed down due to being obsolete, and the entire area fell into disrepair. However, in the 1970s the island was renamed Roosevelt Island (from Welfare Island, as it had come to be known), and Renwick became New York's only landmarked ruin after it was added to the National Register of Historic Places. There has been talk of taking steps to restore and preserve the building since the mid-70s but, so far, no significant action has been taken. Only the outer walls and some of the flooring remain.

Here are some bonus photos of the abandoned Rochester Subway, also in New York:
All photos except the first one courtesy of Opacity.


  1. Although it's use was sad - it's awesome looking! Like a castle. (I have a haunted TB hospital in my "W" - smallpox and TB - dreadful!)

    I had no idea about the subway in Rochester. My mom went to college there. I wonder why they abandoned it...

  2. It's a beautiful building. A pity no one's restored it and put it to positive use.

  3. Like a stately church or castle from England.
    Now, exploring the abandoned subway station - no thanks.

  4. Andrew, this is amazing. When I was researching biochemical warfare, I learned that smallpox is our #1 fear. That's some scary stuff, if you ask me. Incredible, that this structure is on American soil. I would love to see it.

  5. Thank you vaccine makers the world over. I hope they can finally cure old age soon. That's a major problem that isn't getting fixed.

  6. Rusty, I'm with you. Let's start a campaign.

    It is wonderful what modern medicine can do and even more so to think what may come in the future.

    The hospital looks like a wonderful building, I do hope they renovate it.

  7. Very interesting post :)

    Small pox was a deadly disease that was eradicated totally years, years ago. Thank you Edward Jenner, who invented an effective vaccine that led to it's complete eradication from this world saving future generations from this nasty infection. The need for such prison like hospitals existed during those times for completely isolating Small pox patients, scary ! No wonder, it got abandoned. Ugly, disfiguring serious disease with a very high mortality. At least you had hospitals; in developing countries people were left to die in isolated shacks with only religious rituals done in the hope of cure.

    Just imagine, Jenner achieved this great success during an era ( 18th century ) of crude medical practices, no electron microscope, no internet, nothing ! How many diseases have we eradicated after this ? Why many never before heard of diseases are becoming rampant in the modern world? Dengue, West Nile virus etc. that were once present in remote forests are now common diseases in many parts of the world. It is high time we all must give deliberate, critical efforts to find out why we are failing in total eradication of diseases similar to Small pox that affect only human hosts ? Did our focus change from spending money and other resources to cure and care rather than eradication and prevention?

    Thanks Andrew for this thought provoking post.
    Sorry, I wrote a long comment :)

  8. I had no idea smallpox was *that* deadly in children! Another hauntingly beautiful site you have here, Andrew!

  9. Amazing what a difference this made:

    500,000,000 vs. 500 million. The zeros really gave me pause. That's tragic and wasn't that long ago. I pray it never happens again.

    It's too bad they couldn't rebuild those subway lines. We sure could use them!!

  10. Wow, I had no idea small pox killed that many. That's insane. It's just amazing (and sad) to think of all of the diseases of the past that were an immediate death sentence because we had nothing to treat it.

    It's easy to take that kind of thing for granted in this day and age.

  11. I loved your take using abandoned places. I have always been fascinated by what we leave abandoned and why. Hope to read more. Good luck with the A-Z!

  12. I saw the comment about the zeroes. Bravo to you for doing that. I always try to use the zeroes because it drives home the point, as it did here.

    As a parent of autistic kids, I've followed the ongoing "vaccine controversy" pretty closely, and I side with science and the courts that have found no link between autism and vaccines. It'd be great if there was that easy of a solution to the puzzle of autism and other conditions on the spectrum, but it's not. And parents that don't vaccinate their kids create a whole host of far more significant problems.

    Great pictures, as always. You should try to do one (if there's still a letter of the alphabet for it) of the abandoned supercollider in Texas.

  13. I wasn't aware an entire facility was made exclusively for smallpox. And that place is massive!

    Clean up needed in that subway. :)

  14. I love and creeped out by places like this.

    Thanks for sharing.

    Timothy S. Brannan
    The Other Side, April Blog Challenge: The A to Z of Witches

    Ask an Atheist Day

  15. Those old diseases were pretty nasty back in the day. That's why it's important to get your shots.

  16. This is one of the few abandoned buildings that actually fills you with hope. We don't have to worry about Smallpox anymore. Mostly.

  17. New York has got so much history and so many fascinating places. I would love to go investigate the underground and see what kind of epicness I could stumble across.

    True Heroes from A to Z

  18. The hospital sounds exceptionally creepy. It's amazing these types of things are still around.

    And Rochester had a subway? Who knew? But then again how often am I in Rochester? Not very and never for very long.

    Wrote By Rote
    An A to Z Co-host blog

  19. Lexa: Basically, it never got enough use. They had some specific stuff in mind for it when they built it, but other things ended up precluding those uses until they shut the lines down.

    Misha: Well, I think the smallpox hospital was a positive use.

    Alex C: I think the subway would be cool other than that it actually looks kind of boring. All the cool stuff has been removed.

    Alyssia: It certainly was at one time. Not that flu and plague and polio didn't also cause their share of fear.

    Rusty: They may actually have that soon. Not soon enough for us, though.

    Jo: I think we have often lost our appreciation of the wonders of modern medicine.

    Rajiv: Hey, you never have to apologize for long comments!

    I think the issue with the disease eradication is similar to putting a man on the moon. There was an actual goal, "We're going to get rid of smallpox. We have the vaccine; we're going to do it." And they did it until it was done. However, we don't get focused like that very often. The closest we have to anything like that, right now, is the goal of getting rid of cancer, which might be okay if cancer was just one thing, but it's not.

    randi: Yeah, smallpox was scary stuff. And, for a while, there was even the risk of death from the vaccine.

    Elsie: And you know what? That was totally on purpose with the zeros. I wanted that number to give people pause.

    ABftS: I know! Things that are nothing to us today, like strep throat.

    rscottamsbaugh: It is a very interesting thing. However, what I've found: It's almost always money.

    Briane: Again, totally premeditated with zeros, so thanks.

    I'll see if I can find some pics of that.

    David: More than one. Smallpox hospitals were common, even.

    Timothy: I hope to creep you out again sometime.

    Pat: It is important. Unfortunately, especially in this area, there is so much "only doing what is natural" ideology going around that some things, like whooping cough, are making a comeback.

    Maurice: It is a sign of progress.

    Crystal: You know, you always hear whispers about the kinds of things that are supposed to be under places like New York.

    Lee: I've never been there at all, so I didn't know.

  20. The architecture really looks amazing, but what an unpleasant history it has. I imagine those halls are full of a lot of suffering.

  21. Very neat looking a creepy, insane asylum, looking way ;)

  22. Jeanne: Well, yeah, but, at least, the history was something meant for healing.

    Mark: Or a library!

  23. TAS: They remind me of old X-Men comics.

  24. This place even looks haunted! WV has an old asylum. They give daily ghost tours.

  25. Smallpox is nothing to be messed around with...nor is strep. My youngest (who got antibiotics for strep, which our family is highly prone to, but they weren't strong enough) developed scarlet fever - he was about 18 months old - and it was a scary time. Thank God for even stronger anti-biotics.
    Andrew, this series is one of my favorites. This summer I'll be able to catch up and read the whole thing.
    Tina @ Life is Good
    A to Z Team @ Blogging From A to Z April Challenge 2014

  26. Andrew, my latest post on the blog 'magical present' is about Edward Jenner, the great English physician who invented Small pox vaccine. Your post inspired me to write about him and the issues regarding our inability to eradicate diseases after Small pox and rinderpest.
    I have mentioned about you in that post :)
    Thanks :)

  27. G_G: Have you been?

    Tina: I'm sure that would have freaked me right out. My younger boy had a mystery illness at around that age. He ran about 105-106 for a couple of days. That was scary.

    Rajiv: I'm glad I could inspire you!

  28. For a hospital, it's quite lovely! I think it's cool that America has some ruins like this. Makes the country appear a little older than it actually is. :)

  29. Alex: There have been people living and building here for quite a bit longer than the US has been here, so there are some buildings that are pretty old at this point. Not that this one is one those.