Health and Living Podcasts

The Ruins of Roosevelt Island: The macabre history of New York’s “city of asylums”

The Renwick Ruin, resembling an ancient castle lost to time, appears along the East River as a crumbling, medieval-like apparition, something not quite believable.

Sitting between two new additions on Roosevelt Island — the campus of Cornell Tech and FDR Four Freedoms Park — these captivating ruins, enrobed in beautiful ivy, tell the story of a dark period in New York City history.

The island between Manhattan and Queens was once known as Blackwell’s Island, a former pastoral escape that transformed into the ominous ‘city of asylums’, the destination for the poor, the elderly and the criminal during the 19th century.

New. York Municipal Archives

During this period, the island embodied every outdated idea about human physical and mental health, and vast political corruption ensured that the inmates and patients of the island would suffer.

In 1856 the island added a Smallpox Hospital to its notorious roster, designed by acclaimed architect James Renwick Jr (of Saint Patrick’s Cathedral fame) in a Gothic Revival style that captivates visitors to this day — even if the building is in an advanced state of dilapidation.

New York City Municipal Archives

What makes the Renwick Ruin so entrancing? How did this marvelous bit of architecture manage to survive in any form into present day?

PLUS: The grand story of the island — from a hideous execution in 1829 to the modern delights of one of New York City’s most interesting neighborhoods.

For more information on Roosevelt Island history:

Friends of the Ruin

Roosevelt Island Historical Society

I also highly recommend the book Damnation Island: Poor, Sick, Mad, & Criminal in 19th-Century New York by Stacy Horn which tells the story of Blackwell’s Island, institution by institution.

And please check out this great video about Roosevelt Island from 1978:

Historic sites on Roosevelt Island to visit (from north to south):

Roosevelt Island Lighthouse

Nellie Bly Monument “The Girl Puzzle”

The Octagon

Chapel of the Good Shepherd

The Blackwell House

Historic Visitor Center Kiosk and Roosevelt Island Tram

Southpoint Park

Strecker Memorial Laboratory

Smallpox Hospital (aka Renwick Ruin)

FDR Four Freedoms State Park

The entire site of FDR Four Freedoms State Park is located on landfill. Want proof?

New York Municipal Archives
The Renwick Ruin
The Smallpox Hospital grounds with grazing geese.
Behind the ruin, guarded by geese and cats.
Southpoint Park, photo by Greg Young


After listening to this episode on the Renwick Ruin on Roosevelt Island, jump back into these earlier Bowery Boys podcasts which discuss similar themes or situations from the show:

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6 replies on “The Ruins of Roosevelt Island: The macabre history of New York’s “city of asylums””

Did you know? Hilarious to all VC Grads, Renwick Ruin was the inspiration for his design for Vassar’s Main Building with an added Mansard roof.

Loved this. I remember seeing it lit up actually! I wondered all about it! Glad to hear the reason got it. This is s fascinating story. I know someone who lives on Roosevelt Is.
I’ve seen the lighthouse from Carl Schurz Park. Thx

Can anyone provide me a detailed accounting of, Boss Tweed’s incarceration on Blackwell’s Island. Looking for in depth info other than published (and illustrated) Harper’s Magazine article on the subject.


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