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Smallpox Hospital 1856

by James Renwick, 1818-1895

Nineteenth-century New York saw the rise of organized crime and large outbreaks of smallpox despite the availability of the vaccine. In its efforts to expand correctional and medical operations, the city looked to the remote little island on the East River, accessible only by boat until the 1930s. The gothic ruins was the Smallpox Hospital was designed in 1856 by James Renwick and was first of its kind to quarantine and treat victims of contagion. Strecker’s Laboratory, the squat building with a blue door, also supported City and was the first in the nation for pathological and bacteriological research. It currently conceals a converter that powers the underground subway. Both institutions were part of the largest hospital, City Hospital, which, at its peak, served 8,000 patients annually. City Hospital no longer stands, but its salvaged stone now line the paths at the Roosevelt memorial.

The penitentiary used to stand near the Smallpox Hospital. Its imposing “castle-like” complex had wings that spanned north to south from the center of the island. Famous inmates include actress Mae West, who served eight days for “corrupting the morals of the youth” with her scandalous 1926 Broadway play, Sex. Tammany Hall leader William “Boss” Tweed was sentenced 12 years for laundering millions of dollars through graft, but was let out after a year on appeal. He was quickly rearrested for further corruption, but escaped to Cuba, making it as far to Spain before being extradited back to America and living out the rest of his days in Ludlow Street Prison. The penitentiary closed in 1935 when a new one opened on Rikers Island.

In the north, the lobby of The Octagon was originally the entrance of the lunatic asylum, the nation’s first mental hospital, the horrible conditions of which were exposed by Nellie Bly in her 1887 book Ten Days in a Mad-House. Nearby, the 50-foot lighthouse with echoing octagonal shaft was built in 1872 by penitentiary inmates. There used to be a plaque at the base attributing the work to John McCarthy, an asylum patient whose name and existence has never been proven. According to legend, this patient built a sizable “fort” out of mud in fear of a British invasion. He cleared most of the marsh until he was eventually bribed with fake money to abandon the project so the lighthouse could be built. In the ‘50s, most of the hospitals closed when operations moved to Queens. After two decades of abandon, the island was finally redeveloped into the quiet residential community you see today.

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