Hidden Treasures of Roosevelt Island: Smallpox Hospital and Four Freedoms Park

In the middle of the East River between Manhattan and Queens is Roosevelt Island, with the Ed Koch Queensboro Bridge stretching overhead. Most people never visit Roosevelt Island, unless they happen to take a trip on the Roosevelt Island Tram. (Riding the F train when it stops at the Roosevelt Island station doesn’t count!) But it’s definitely worth taking the time to explore Roosevelt Island further. Today, I thought I’d focus on the hidden treasures found on the south end of the island: the ruins of the Smallpox Hospital and Franklin D. Roosevelt Four Freedoms Park.

The Smallpox Hospital ruins capture the imagination. The original building was designed by architect James Renwick, Jr. and completed in 1856, when Roosevelt Island was still known as Blackwell’s Island. It is an example of Gothic Revival architecture. Renwick is more commonly known for other Gothic Revival designs in New York City, including Grace Church and St. Patrick’s Cathedral. The building had a short life treating smallpox patients before becoming part of the City Hospital complex on the island. In the 1950s, City Hospital moved to Queens, and the Smallpox Hospital, which also became known as the Renwick Ruins, was abandoned. It’s continued to deteriorate since.

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In 1972, the Smallpox Hospital was listed on the National Register of Historic Places, and it has also been designated a New York City landmark. Because the building is in poor condition, there are fences preventing public access. In places, you can see the steel scaffolding that has been used to stabilize the remaining walls.

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Just past the Smallpox Hospital ruins you will spy Franklin D. Roosevelt Four Freedoms Park, which was designed by famous architect Louis I. Kahn. The park’s name comes from President Roosevelt’s 1941 State of the Union address, where he identified four key freedoms: Freedom of Speech, Freedom of Worship, Freedom from Want, and Freedom from Fear. Here is what the park looks like from the entry.

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Continue walking along the path on either side of the elevated portion of the park, towards the southern tip of the island.

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If looking west, towards Manhattan, here is your view.

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On the other hand, if looking east, towards Queens, you have this view of Long Island City and the iconic neon Pepsi sign.

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Looking back from the other end of the elevated park, there is this perspective. The shaded grass makes a relaxing location for a break or enjoying a picnic.

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At the very tip of the park is a giant block of granite. One side hosts this giant bronze bust of President Roosevelt, while the opposite has the relevant words from his Four Freedoms address.

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Finally, far off in the distance, you will also have a (usually hazy) view of the Williamsburg Bridge.

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There are two main ways to get to Roosevelt Island by public transportation. If traveling by subway, take the F train to the Roosevelt Island station. You can also travel from Manhattan using the Roosevelt Island Tram, which I previously wrote about here. Once you get off of the tram, face towards Manhattan. You will be walking to the end of the island on your left (the south end of the island). It’s about a 15 minute walk to the Smallpox Hospital ruins and Four Freedoms Park, with plenty of scenic views of New York City along the way. There’s a paved walkway along the river, and you will also pass through Southpoint Park along the way.

17 thoughts on “Hidden Treasures of Roosevelt Island: Smallpox Hospital and Four Freedoms Park

  1. I’m touched by the Smallpox Hospital ruins, grateful that the current generation doesn’t know this disease. I was very excited by the reference to Louis Kahn & the pictures of the Four Freedoms Park. He is so little known today, & I would still know nothing but for the moving 2003 documentary, My Architect, by his son Nathaniel. I urge anyone who doesn’t know the work of Louis Kahn to search out the documentary or look online for references to it.

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  2. I really wanted to visit Roosevelt Island and the smallpox hospital when I was in NYC. I had heard about them through a Bowery Boys podcast and it peaked my interest.. unfortunately I didn’t get the time.. oh well, next time right 🙂

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  3. I live 15 miles away and have never been to Roosevelt Island. At one time I worked on the east side and would spend lunch on a bench overlooking the East River with Roosevelt Island staring me in the face. Never occurred to me to go there. Thanks for the tip.

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  4. Another diverse post. It doesn’t take long to produce a ruin, does it? You do a great job of backgrounding these two contiguous places. Did you pause for a picnic?

    Infectious disease hospitals (like garbage tips) always seem to be beautifully sited. In Sydney the Old Quarantine Station is on a headland with magnificent bush, and views out to sea and back across the harbour. I suppose the requirement for isolation makes sure they’re in good spots.

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    1. We didn’t have a picnic the last time we went, but we really wished we had brought one with us! You are right, it is interesting how the need to isolate these hospitals led to some beautifully sited facilities. The islands around New York City were quarantine facilities, immigration stations, prisons, military outposts, and so much more!

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  5. The ruins are so stunning with the ivy. Glad they’re preserving what is left. The park is lovely too, and looks like another great spot to check out. It is amazing how many hidden gems there are in NYC. So glad you take the time to blog about them and highlight such interesting places!

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  6. Well, now I’m even more upset I didn’t have a chance to visit Roosevelt Island! I’m a bit FDR obsessed, so I wanted to see that bust, but I wasn’t aware there were the awesome ruins of a smallpox hospital too! Oh well, guess it’ll have to be part of the return trip, along with eating 10x more pizza than I did the first time!

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