Memories of a Renwick in Washington, DC

The photograph below is especially beautiful because it depicts a stunning James Renwick, Jr. spired church and in the distance shows the US Capitol building under construction. Construction on the Capitol began in the 1793 when President Washington helped lay the cornerstone and it was completed by the year 1800. The signature 'wedding cake style' dome, however, was added many years later in the 1850s. Look closely at the photograph and you can see the Capitol's dome surrounded in construction scaffolding and topped with a crane-like armature.

 US Capitol under construction and the Trinity Episcopal Church, Library of Congress

US Capitol under construction and the Trinity Episcopal Church, Library of Congress

The two buildings sit thoughtfully in the landscape. The James Renwick building was called the Trinity Episcopal Church and opened to the public in 1851. According to the Washington Post, when the Civil War broke out "the church was requisitioned for use as a hospital. A raised wooden floor was laid atop the pews and secured with nails. (The nail holes were forever visible.) Lincoln is said to have visited wounded soldiers."

 The Trinity Episcopal Church had two large spires marking its main façade, Library of Congress

The Trinity Episcopal Church had two large spires marking its main façade, Library of Congress

  Capital Losses  by James M. Goode

Capital Losses by James M. Goode

By the early 1920s, the church was converted to a mission to serve the impoverished and by 1936, "the Episcopal Diocese of Washington agreed to lease the 14,000-square-foot property to Auto City Parking for $50,000. On June 16, 1936, the last service was conducted at the church. Demolition began three months later."

You can read more about the Renwick building in James M. Goode's Capital Losses.

The Smallpox Virus

This week we launched a new section on our website dedicated to the history of the smallpox virus. Please find it here. As the smallpox virus plays a critical part of world history, we hope to expand this section of our history site over the course of the next months.

We also want to take a moment to applaud the good work of the World Health Organization and all they have done to rid the world of this devastating infection.

 Smallpox is Dead!

Smallpox is Dead!

1969: An Island's Vacant Southern End

In 1969, Roosevelt Island was called Welfare Island and was a site of prisons, hospitals, like Goldwater, and a penitentiary. The island, with its rich history, was also home to an incredible amount of derelict and vacant structures.

In the late 1960s, the Planning and Development Committee of Welfare Island created an official report for New York City Mayor John Lindsay on the island's health. In it, the committee included a copy of this map (digitally updated here) and showed how the island's southern end included twenty buildings, all of them vacant.

Structures ranged in purpose from a children's pavilion and an 'old female' dormitory from 1902 and a paint shop from 1850. Only three of these structures exist today:  the Smallpox Hospital, the subway vent, and Strecker Laboratory.

In 1973, Welfare Island was renamed for Franklin D. Roosevelt and the State devised a plan to redevelop much of it into housing. The land on the island's southern end was untouched for years. Seventeen of the twenty buildings either crumbled or were demolished and island's edges eroded into the East River. In 1976, however, the Smallpox Hospital was designated a New York City Landmark and in 2002 the Strecker Lab was repurposed as a substation for the Metropolitan Transit Authority. In the early 2010s, Southpoint Park and Four Freedoms Park opened to the public.

When visiting the two parks and few buildings at the southern end of the island, it is interesting to imagine how crowded the site once was.


Buildings On Site in 1969

1.  Receiving Ward - Constructed 1904

2.  Community Store - Date Unknown

3.  Chapel - 1900

4.  Nurses' Dormitory - 1912

5.  Maternity Pavilion - 1888

6.  Old Female Dormitory - 1902

7.  Paint Shop - 1850

8.  Smallpox Hospital - 1854

9.  Fire Hose SHelter - 1930

10.  City Hospital - 1858

11.  Children's Pavilion - 1902

12.  Fire Hose Shelter - Date Unknown

13.  Animal House - Date Unknown

14.  Strecker Laboratory - 1892

15.  Boiler House - 1912

16.  Service Building - 1908

17.  Subway Vent- Date Unknown

18.  Miscellaneous Building - 1902

19.  Staff House - 1930

20.  Kitchen - 1850

 

New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission Report of 1976

 In 1976, the main façade of the Smallpox Hospital was more intact and the building was surrounded by many more trees, New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission

In 1976, the main façade of the Smallpox Hospital was more intact and the building was surrounded by many more trees, New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission

The New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission is a city agency that oversees Landmarks Preservation law. This set of laws was established by Mayor Robert F. Wagner, Jr. in 1965 to preserve designated buildings and sites of historic, architectural, or cultural importance. On March 23, 1976, the Smallpox Hospital (which, by then, was a ruin) was designated a New York City Landmark by the commission. These four gorgeous black-and-white photograph were taken circa 1976 and were included in the building’s application for designation.

Today, we have published the full report, which you can find here.

 Two bay windows supported by large timbers, New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission

Two bay windows supported by large timbers, New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission

 The main entrance porch of the Smallpox Hospital, New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission

The main entrance porch of the Smallpox Hospital, New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission

 The building's western façade, New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission

The building's western façade, New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission

Remembering a Landmark: Serbian Orthrodox Catherdal of St. Sava

 The landmark Richard Upjohn cathedral was located in Manhattan on 25th street and Broadway, Beyond My Ken

The landmark Richard Upjohn cathedral was located in Manhattan on 25th street and Broadway, Beyond My Ken

This past weekend, New York City lost a beautiful landmark. The Trinity Chapel, now known as the Serbian Orthodox Cathedral of St. Sava, suffered a devastating fire. The building presently stands in ruin and its future unknown. The chapel was designed by a contemporary of James Renwick, Jr., an architect known as Richard M. Upjohn (1828-1903). The Gothic revival structure opened one year before the Smallpox Hospital and served the community for over 160 years. To remember the building, we publish today three Upjohn drawings from its original construction. Like Renwick, Upjohn had terrific craft and architectural skill.

In 1968, the Landmarks Preservation Commission described St. Sava as "an excellent example of the large metropolitan church done in the English Gothic Revival style. It is a pleasing edifice, rugged in character, of substantial construction, and reinforced with large buttresses which give it both durability and permanence." The building had a "special character, special historical and aesthetic interest and value as part of the development, heritage and cultural characteristics of New York City." The building was designated a New York City landmark in 1968 and was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1982.

 Cathedral interior, Kent G. Becker

Cathedral interior, Kent G. Becker

Architectural Details by Richard M. Upjohn

 Architectural plan and elevations of the original church podium, Library of Congress

Architectural plan and elevations of the original church podium, Library of Congress

 Architectural detail of the choir stalls, Library of Congress

Architectural detail of the choir stalls, Library of Congress

 Floor plan and elevations of the church altar, Library of Congress

Floor plan and elevations of the church altar, Library of Congress

Timeline of the Smallpox Hospital: 1828 — Present

This week we launched a new, illustrated timeline of the Smallpox Hospital. Find it here. The timeline begins in 1828 with purchase of Blackwell Island (now known as Roosevelt Island) by the City of New York and spans nearly 200 years to the present. It also explores key moments like the death of architect James Renwick, Jr., or when neighboring building such as City Hospital or Strecker Laboratory were constructed, demolished or restored. We hope you enjoy exploring!

 The history of the Smallpox Hospital is not nearly as complicated as Joseph Priestley's  A New Chart of History  from 1769, but is still fascinating.

The history of the Smallpox Hospital is not nearly as complicated as Joseph Priestley's A New Chart of History from 1769, but is still fascinating.