Wall of Roosevelt Island's Smallpox Hospital Collapses

Posted on: January 22nd, 2008 by Margaret Foster

Smallpox HospitalAbandoned since the 1950s, a hospital built on New York City's Roosevelt Island in 1856 is falling apart.

Last month, the north wall of the smallpox hospital partially collapsed, forcing groups that are trying to create a park on the island to come up with an emergency plan to stabilize the building.

"It's really in bad shape," says Judith Berdy, president of the Roosevelt Island Historical Society, "The brick interior walls are coming away from the stone. If nothing is done in the next few months, that whole wing will just come down."

All of Roosevelt Island's six historic buildings have been restored except the hospital, designed by James Renwick Jr., the architect of St. Patrick's Cathedral. The collapsed wall is located in a wing that was built in 1905.

"In the 1960s and 70s, when the island was being developed, people started taking the copper," Berdy says. "Once the copper went, the eaves, the gutters, and the whole building went. It's been stabilized a few times, but it's always been a patchwork job."

At the state of New York's request, the Trust for Public Land created a master plan for the island in 2004 and worked with the city and state to raise $12.9 million for a park on the northern eight acres of the 14-acre site.

The master plan includes $4 to $4.5 million to stabilize and restore the smallpox hospital, but the money may have to go to shoring up what the most people call a ruin.

"The goal of our design is to stabilize and restore the ruin as a centerpiece for the park," says Andy Stone, director of the New York City program of the Trust for Public Land. "We were a little disappointed to find out that for the money available, we couldn't go more toward the restoration."

The Trust for Public Land has asked the Roosevelt Island Operating Corporation of the State of New York, which manages, operates, and develops the 147-acre island, to hire consultants to stabilize the building on an emergency basis. The corporation must pay for the repairs out of the $4.5 budget.

"We're working closely with engineers, preservationists, the state historic preservation office, to get a plan to do something as quickly as possible," says Steven Shane, president and CEO of the Roosevelt Island Operating Corporation. "We can't do anything without getting a lot of admin approvals because it's on the [state and National] historic registers. As soon as the engineers have pulled together a definite plan, we're going to do it."

Architects envision a glass structure inside the smallpox hospital ruin, Stone says. "You might have some kind of concession inside to generate revenue for the whole park. There's that kind of vision," he says.

This summer, workers will begin construction of the park, which is scheduled to open in 2009.

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