NY opening old smallpox hospital to public
Thursday, May 28th 2009
NEW YORK - In the 1800s, it was an island filled with a smallpox hospital, a poorhouse, a penitentiary and a lunatic asylum. Today, it's the site of a high-rise village of nearly 14,000 people and boasts the city's only ruin that is also an official landmark.
Historians, land preservationists and local residents converged Thursday to complete another step in the history of 147-acre Roosevelt Island, formerly known as Welfare Island and before that as Blackwell's Island, for its original settlers.
In a light drizzle, the officials joined in ceremonially breaking ground for a new 9-acre park, then cut a ribbon marking the stabilization of the former Smallpox Hospital, a ghostly relic whose north wall partially collapsed in late 2007 in a shower of bricks and had to be shored up to prevent further problems.
Designed by architect James Renwick, whose works also include St. Patrick's Cathedral in mid-Manhattan, the three-story stone edifice handled contagious disease patients from 1856 to the 1870s, when it was closed and turned into a school for nurses. Later abandoned, it has stood empty for years in the middle of the East River, spookily lit at night like a scene from a horror movie.
Several officials noted that as New York City's "only landmarked ruin," the hospital will be integrated into a 14-acre public space at the southern end of the island, also to include the South Point Park and a proposed stone memorial to President Franklin D. Roosevelt, for whom the former Welfare Island was renamed in 1973.
Under tents erected to ward off the rain, speakers said that the space would serve not only island residents, but that also, with its sweeping vistas of Manhattan towers, the lacy Queensboro Bridge and the United Nations, it could become a "destination park" for tourists visitng Gotham.
"That would require a lot of promotion, but you have to have a vision," said Andy Stone, New York director for the Trust for Public Land, a nonprofit dedicated to conserving land for public use, and one of several organizations sharing in the effort.
Jessica Lappin, a City councilwoman who obtained $4.5 million in city funds for the project, said she hoped the new park, though minuscule by comparison, would have the same kind of appeal as Manhattan's Central Park and Prospect Park in Brooklyn.
Roosevelt Island is served by a subway and an aerial tram to Manhattan that is already popular with tourists and gained some notoriety when it broke down in 2006, stranding nearly 70 passengers in gondolas above the river for several hours.
Built atop rubble, with winding paths and hills to give it a natural appearance, the park will have gardens, lawns and a "scenic overlook."
While Roosevelt Island residents are widely enthusiatic about the park and preservation of the so-called "Renwick ruin," they are less so about the FDR memorial, now undergoing a final public approval process.
The memorial is based on a stone monolith design by architect Louis I. Kahn, who had not completed the design when he died of a heart attack in 1974, a year after the name change to Roosevelt Island. His body, found in a men's room at Penn Station, was identified through the sketches found in his pocket.
Sherie Helstien, former secretary of the island's residents' association, said the sponsors of the FDR memorial had ignored residents' proposals to have Roosevelt himself portrayed as a disabled person who spent much of his life in a wheelchair, although the island held many patients who had polio, as he did.
This article was written by RICHARD PYLE and published by Newsday on Thursday, May 28th 2009 and NOT owned by nor affiliated with opacity.us, but are recorded here solely for educational use. The photographs featured in the article are randomly selected from the Renwick Smallpox Hospital galleries on opacity.us unless noted otherwise; they may not directly relate to the article subject matter except for the site location - any other relation is purely coincidental.