160 Years - The Smallpox Hospital

Happy 160th Birthday to the Smallpox Hospital

Rendering of the original Smallpox Hospital

Rendering of the original Smallpox Hospital

On this day in history, the Smallpox Hospital opened its doors to victims of this disease. Prior to its opening, patients were housed in what the State of New York described as piles of poor wooden outhouses on the edge of East River. Need for a hospital with proper accommodations was most critical. Fortunately, for its design, the State selected James Renwick, Jr., a young architect who had recently completed the main Smithsonian Institution building in Washington, DC. His three-story Gothic Revival structure included a central dome, a stately entrance and windows throughout. It took roughly two years to complete, the stone used was native to the island and it opened to the public on December 18, 1856.

Isaac Townsend, Chairman of the Committee of the Almshouse Department for Blackwell Island, presided at the building's opening ceremony. The Smallpox Hospital, he stated, would "afford accommodations to all persons laboring under the [smallpox] disease.” He spoke to the committee’s progressive views of providing healthcare for all, not just the wealthy or entitled.

Townsend concluded boldly "the consciousness of having in our day and generation anticipated the future greatness and glory of our country, ought to form a sufficient reward for the preserving labors we bring to so satisfactory a termination. We would that every citizen might raise for himself a monument in some new institution, destined to carry down to future ages the blessings of a progressive civilization.”

Quite interestingly, Townsend also provided details of what the structure once looked like inside, before it was a ruin.

An interior corridor of the building circa 1980. By 1980 the building had already been vacant for 30 years. The interiors of the Smallpox Hospital have since been stripped of walls and architectural details.

An interior corridor of the building circa 1980. By 1980 the building had already been vacant for 30 years. The interiors of the Smallpox Hospital have since been stripped of walls and architectural details.

Two corridors cross each other on each floor, the entire length and width of the building. The staircase is of iron. The first floor is devoted to the use of the Physician, Matron, servants’ rooms, kitchen, laundry and stores. The second floor is for charity patients, and is divided into four large and four small wards. The larger are 23 feet by 15, the smaller 15 by 11, and are calculated to accommodate 50 to 60 sick persons. The ceilings throughout are sufficiently lofty. Ventilation is secured by an air duct connected with a chimney and a windsail, and communicating by flues in the walls with each ward. Other flues, connecting with the cupola, are traversed by air that has been rarified by a constant fire, and drawn from the rooms below…