Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Roosevelt Island's Vanishing History as a Hospital Haven

Roosevelt Island has a nearly two-century-old history as a convalescent center, though many of its medical facilities have long been shut down. One of the most famous — the Renwick Smallpox Hospital at the southern end of the island — was closed in the 1950s and is now the only ruin in New York City that's designated as a historic landmark.

Near the northern end, the former New York Insane Asylum is currently an apartment complex called the Octagon. (These days, only the rents are insane!)

I recently learned that our own apartment building sits on the site of a syphilis-treatment center from the post-World War II years. But New York's most famous quarantined patient, Typhoid Mary, wasn't held on Roosevelt Island — contrary to some people's recollections. She lived out her days on North Brother Island, which is now a bird sanctuary.

Another chapter in Roosevelt Island's history ended over the weekend, when patients were transferred from the Goldwater Hospital, a 74-year-old facility in the shadow of the Queensboro Bridge. The hospital will be demolished to make way for the Cornell NYC Tech campus, which begins construction next year.

The facility served the chronically ill, and many of its residents were wheelchair-bound. The patients are moving to a gleaming, new facility in Harlem. Still, they will probably miss wheeling around Roosevelt Island and taking in the views.

I'm not sure the building itself will be missed — though if a movie-location scout were seeking a generic "dreary hospital," it would be perfect.

I always liked the attempt to enliven its drab facade by putting a heart in the hospital logo. (That oughta do it!)

Moreover, a connection to Roosevelt Island's history will be lost. This windswept isle used to be the place that New York put its outcasts (the criminals, the sick people, the crazies).

It's like that Sean Connery quote about Alcatraz, after he discovers that it's no longer the most fearsome prison in the federal-penitentiary system: "The Rock has become a tourist attraction?"

What has Roosevelt Island become?