The 1876 Abbey of the Community of St. Mary, shot by moonlight.
For over a century, the Convent at Mount St. Gabriel, a picturesque plot of land in the highlands of Peekskill, NY, was home to the Community of St. Mary. From its humble beginnings in 1872 in a clapboard farmhouse, the Convent soon grew into a multi-building complex with a full church, a school, and ample housing for both the Sisters and their charges. By 2003, when the convent moved to Greenwich, NY, the school had already been repurposed, but the Abbey proper, as well as the Chapel, remained vacant, as they have to this day.
Based on a Benedictine model, the Community of St. Mary adheres to a simple monastic life centered around prayer, reflection, and service. From tumultuous beginnings, including an uphill battle against the established positions of the Church on monastic orders in general, the CSM eventually flourished after being widely recognized for the selfless acts of its Sisters in service to the community. It is the oldest indigenous Anglican order in the New World, and the first monastic body constituted by the Episcopal Church since the dissolution of monasteries in the 16th century.
While the forms of service practiced by the nuns of the order have varied over the years and regions, at this particular complex, the running of a school and the manufacture of communion wafers were a primary focus. In 1977, as a result of declining enrollment, the Episcopal church closed the school, and the parcel of land containing it was sold off to a private developer; in the early 1980s, the 1911 building was converted to luxury condominiums. The Chaplain's House on the grounds is now the private residence of a local doctor, and has been gut renovated.
But since the CSM moved to a larger property in Greenwich, New York, in 2003, little has been done to the 1876 Abbey and 1896 Chapel buildings. The interiors of each are, for the most part, gutted; work was begun on the buildings, but never completed, due to the subprime mortgage collapse. Some significant interior architectural features have been left intact, but the majority of the structures have been stripped down to their frames. The properties are owned by Ginsburg Development, and their website indicates that they will be developed as "The Abbey at Fort Hill", a 12-unit luxury condo complex. This would be to the benefit of the town of Peekskill, which sorely needs the tax revenue, but also to the benefit of the Community of St. Mary - as part of the proposed development, Ginsburg would relocate the cemetery to the Greenwich location, bringing the founding Sisters to the modern convent.
The majority of the Abbey was gutted in between 2003, when the property was vacated, and the subprime mortgage collapse of 2008.
Untouched so far, the chapel on the second floor of the Abbey is remarkably intact.
During the heyday of the Convent, this chapel was primarily used to provide services for ailing nuns, who were housed on the second floor of the building.
As membership in the Convent and its school declined, the small chapel was used for most services, and the large 1896 Chapel building was only used for special functions.
The ornate hand-painted walls were finished prior to the start of the First World War, and are holding up remarkably well.
Very few interior architectural details remain, but apparently the developers feel that the original wooden staircases will fit with their luxury condo designs.
A view through one of the dormer windows on the third floor, looking towards the Chapel building.
An ornate spiral staircase leads from the first to the third floors.
This mechanism, with an array of gears and dangling weights, led up into what was possibly a bell tower.
View of the grounds at sundown. To the left is the Abbey, and to the right is the Chapel.
A dusk view of the 1896 Chapel, which was constructed of locally quarried stone - during this time period, labor was cheap, and materials expensive.
A font on the outside of the chapel; the inscription translates (roughly) as "Lydia: rest thou well and pray for us".
The bell tower on the Chapel building.
A view to the road leading away from the Convent.
For more images of the Convent, check out Amy Heiden Photography.
Friday, September 16, 2011
Sunday, February 6, 2011
Ballroom in 2006, in the midst of being gutted; the marble floor was in the process of being pulled up.
Personal note: I feel compelled by recent reports of the deteriorating conditions at The Divine Lorraine to write this article, which I may only accompany by some photos taken in the span of a couple of hours in 2006. The Lorraine is NRHP listed for both its architectural import and its significance in civil rights as the first integrated hotel in Philadelphia. It is currently in significant danger of demolition-by-neglect. Because the building is now gutted and deteriorating, I cannot reshoot the photographic content for this article, so I must present what I have, warts and all.
View of building from tiny porch attached to bedroom.
The building currently known as the Divine Lorraine Hotel has been a fixture on North Broad Street in Philadelphia for over a century. It was designed, as the “Lorraine Apartments”, by controversial architect Willis G. Hale in his characteristically theatrical high-Victorian style. Construction began in 1892 and took two years to finish. At the time, the building was praised by few – Hale’s style was seen as outdated, being typified by extravagant ornamentation, and many viewed the Lorraine as bombastic.
Nevertheless, it was a very luxurious building, and among the first high-rise apartment buildings in Philadelphia. Offering an in-house staff that eliminated the need for personal servants, a central kitchen in which meals were prepared for tenants, and two luxurious ballrooms for events, the Lorraine briefly attracted the upper crust of city renters. In 1900, it was purchased by a new interest which converted it into a hotel. It continued to attract a wealthy clientele until its sale in 1948 to Father Divine, who anticipated a very different use for the structure.
A typical hallway in the Lorraine.
Typical bedrooms in the Lorraine contained features such as this small fireplace.
One of the few beds remaining when the building was photographed.
Most of the artifacts that had been left in the Lorraine were moved down to first floor and affixed with price tags; apparently, these books weren't worth the hassle.
The most common artifact found in the hotel: a copy of the Bible.
The only television seen in the entire structure; Father Divine was said to have frowned on the viewing of TV.
A bathtub was pulled halfway out of this crumbling bathroom.
A room on the Ninth Floor. This is supposed to have been the room in which Father Divine's wife lived; even the head of the movement was not exempted from the rules prohibiting cohabitation.
A view from one room into the room across the hall. The rooms were painted in a variety of pastel colors.
Introduction of the Divine
George Baker was born, likely in Maryland, to two former slaves. From humble beginnings as a gardener and itinerant Baptist preacher, he came to envision himself first as a divine messenger, and eventually as a deity himself. He granted himself the title of Reverend Major Jealous Divine, and became known to his rapidly growing congregations as Father Divine. In his early years, his preachings focused primarily on the virtues of celibacy and the downplaying of gender roles.
The front of the tenth-floor chapel, originally one of two ballrooms in the Lorraine Apartments.
Father Divine and his congregation moved frequently in the early years, and eventually settled in New York. Several times, he ran afoul of the law, and he moved around the city, and outside the city. Meanwhile, his message shifted towards civil rights. Unlike many black preachers of the day, he was not polarized against whites – Father Divine’s message centered around equality, and he focused on desegregation, anti-lynching legislation, and similar issues. He formalized his movement into a church, the International Peace Mission Movement.
In 1942, Divine’s legal troubles caused him to flee New York; he ended up in Philadelphia. In 1944, Johnny Mercer attended a sermon entitled “You got to accentuate the positive and eliminate the negative.” Mercer wrote his trademark song the following year. Meanwhile, Divine decided to open up a number of residences for his flock, which he referred to as Heavens. In 1948, he purchased the Lorraine Hotel for $485,000, reopening it as a Heaven under its new, and final, name: The Divine Lorraine.
A Bible lays open to the book of Job on a dresser; this would almost seem a fitting metaphor for the building itself, were it not so likely that someone had intentionally left it like that.
Because of his focus on celibacy, even within marriage, Divine divided the structure by floors; men and women would not share a floor. Modesty was expected of the residents; women had to wear long skirts, and men, long pants. Alcohol, drugs, and cigarettes were forbidden, as was swearing, mixing of the sexes outside of meals and church functions, and any form of blasphemy.
The clientele of the Lorraine changed drastically; congregants were simply given rooms to live in, as they were expected to have already turned over their savings to Divine. Additional rooms were available to rent, but the prices were low, and the Lorraine no longer attracted the upper-class residents that once called it home. The hotel was fully integrated, with no preference for race, and religious belief outside the movement was accepted so long as it did not contradict the teachings of Father Divine. A soup kitchen was operated out of the first floor of the building, providing hot meals to the indigent of the neighborhood.
When Father Divine took over the Lorraine, this statuette was affixed to the front. If any readers know who the statue portrays, please let me know.
Father Divine passed away at his estate in Gladwyne, PA, in 1965. His second wife, Edna Rose Ritchings, who was significantly younger than he, took over leadership of the movement. The congregation continued to operate the Divine Lorraine. In the early 70s, cult leader Jim Jones split off from the International Peace Mission Movement, forming the Peoples Temple – the group which would eventually commit mass suicide in Jonestown. Eventually, the movement began to dwindle – Father Divine’s teachings forbade sex, and the movement stopped attracting new members – and most of the Heavens had to be sold. In 2000, the congregation parted with the Divine Lorraine Hotel.
A wide view of the chapel just after first light.
Detail of the proscenium over the tiny stage from which Father Divine gave his sermons.
The rear of the chapel.
Detail of the "God" inlay at the rear of the chapel.
Sale, Gutting, and Neglect
David Peace, an adherent to the International Peace Mission Movement, continued to reside in the building from 2000 until 2006, maintaining it to the best of his abilities. This proved relatively easy to do – because in a rare turn for an economically beleaguered neighborhood, area dealers and squatters had so much respect for the legacy of Father Divine that there were few attempts to trespass in, or vandalize, the structure.
The Divine Lorraine was listed on the National Registry of Historic Places in 2002. In May 2006, Philadelphia developer Michael Treacy, Jr. purchased the building and formed a development team to oversee its use. He promised that the building would be rehabilitated as a mixed-use property, consisting of 135 condominiums and a large-scale restaurant, and that the historical integrity of the landmark would be preserved.
Most of the furniture and other artifacts from the Lorraine were gathered on the first floor and affixed with prices, ready for a rummage sale.
For a few months, little happened, and then work crews began to show up at the building. But they were not there to rehab – little by little, they began to tear the building apart, selling off pieces to architectural salvage companies and interested individuals. Marble floors were removed from the ballroom and chapel; wooden floors were torn up and bundled, bathtubs were gathered in hallways. Even the ornate plasterwork was torn apart. And after the building was thoroughly scavenged, it was completely abandoned, without any significant measure being taken even to shore up the roofs.
A plywood walkway was constructed at the rear entrance to facilitate moving demolition equipment in and out - as well as objects being sold, such as the kitchen equipment lined up to the left.
As it turns out, the developer had no intention of rehabilitating and preserving the Lorraine unless the city and neighborhood bowed to a number of concessions, including fiscal benefits, additional land acquisition, and favorable zoning. When the developer did not receive the requested concessions, he gutted the building, sold what he could for salvage, and left the structure to rot. David Peace no longer watches over it, and having gutted, it is no longer treated with the reverence it once was. It has become a home to squatters and members of the drug community, and has been heavily vandalized; its exterior is now covered in graffiti. Water damage too has quickly become an issue. Less than half a decade’s worth of neglect has reduced the Divine Lorraine to an endangered shell.
The grand stairwell from the first to the second floors was sheathed in plywood; recent photographs indicated that the stairs themselves were torn apart for the marble, and only an iron skeleton remains.
When I visited the Lorraine in 2006, salvage was well underway. In this hallway, the hardwood floor has been torn up and bundled for sale.
In this room, the tub was pulled from the bathroom, and the marble tiles were then ripped out and placed against the wall. The doors have also been removed.
A room in which the hardwood floor has already been scavenged; it appears that the door is next.
The door here has been removed, as well as the brass hinge. Even the screws from the switch-plate were taken.
Throughout the lower floors of the building, various like objects were grouped together by kind, presumably to facilitate sale. Here, doors are stacked against each other in rows.
Dozens of radiators filled another room.
The bathtubs were removed from this floor's bathrooms and lined up in the hallway.
Even the mattresses, unused in over half a decade, were priced to sell.
As a Closing Note
It is unacceptable that this building, a national as well as a local landmark, is falling prey to demolition-by-neglect. While the figure of Father Divine and the nature of his movement may be controversial, it is uncontroversial that he was an important precursor to the civil rights struggle, and that the Divine Lorraine had a significant role in this history, both by association and by virtue of its status as the first integrated hotel in Philadelphia. Further, it is a remarkable building, and one of the few Hale commissions still standing. The avarice of a developer who gutted the building, “taking her for all she was worth”, and then walked away, should not be allowed to cause the eventual destruction of this treasure.
I would urge all of my readers in Philadelphia to get involved on some level with the preservation of this structure. And I would urge all of my readers outside of Philadelphia to spread the word. If there is enough public outcry over this, if the right people are appropriately shamed, perhaps the Divine Lorraine stands a chance of being a jewel of Philadelphia once again.
This tiny cross placed upon a lightswitch had managed to endure.
Thursday, January 13, 2011
The overgrown main road running north-south through the island; to the right are the nurses' residence and doctors' cottage, and to the left, the maintenance building and tennis courts.
NEW: Many people have asked for prints from North Brother Island over the years, but I've been reticent to put together a comprehensive prints list because making individual prints is so time consuming. But I have just set up a gallery on my SmugMug page that has over 100 images available - including about 50 that didn't make it into this blog post for space reasons or because they were taken after publication. So if you're interested in owning an image from this series - or just want to see the photographs that didn't make it in here - browse on over and have a look!
A Brief Introduction
Of all the forgotten and mysterious places in the Five Boroughs of New York City, few have histories as rich and interesting as that of North Brother Island. Situated in the Hell Gate, a particularly treacherous stretch of the East River, North Brother was home to the quarantine hospital that housed Typhoid Mary, was the final destination of the General Slocum during its tragic final voyage, and was the site of an experimental drug treatment program which failed due to corruption. Riverside Hospital, the name of the facility on the island throughout its various incarnations, treated everything from smallpox and leprosy to venereal disease and heroin addiction; after the Second World War, it housed soldiers who were studying under the GI bill. The entirety of the island has been abandoned since 1963; over a dozen buildings remain, in various states of disrepair.
The gantry crane at the ferry slip which would transport patients and staff to its sister slip in Port Morris.
North Brother Island remains off-limits to the public due to its designation as a protected nesting area, and it is home to a rare colony of black-crowned night herons. As such, it remains an inscrutable mystery to most New Yorkers, even though it is closer to the Empire State Building than most of Brooklyn. Derelict for nearly half a century, it provides fascinating glimpses into demolition by neglect, into the architecture of quarantine, and into the collective history of the islands of the outer boroughs; like Hart Island to the northeast, and Blackwell’s Island to the southwest, North Brother was used as a dumping ground for indigent New Yorkers stricken with social disease. Here is a look at the island in its present condition, as well as a brief overview of its history.
The Western Buildings
An access road leads between the morgue to the right, and the physical plant and coal house to the left.
The situation of the building which housed the morgue and pathology labs right beside the ferry dock at first seems a little strange – why would the island’s planners put a building symbolic of death near the entry point of a place where the hope was recovery and convalescence? The answer lies in the fact that this building was originally the island’s chapel – explaining the gothic-arched windows inlaid with stained glass, as well as its odd location. When the island’s population expanded, a new wooden chapel was built to the south; the old chapel was repurposed. This proved convenient during outbreaks as well; bodies could be removed to the potter's field on Hart Island or to other cemeteries with relative haste after autopsy.
The refrigeration room in the morgue. Individual cabinets for corpses were not used in this morgue. Mary Mallon - widely known as Typhoid Mary - worked in the pathology lab in the same building during her second confinement on the island.
The exam table in the morgue. Note that this was not the autopsy table, which would have been a single-piece lipped table with sluices for the blood to drain. Sadly, this artifact was removed from the island in late 2008.
Lightning struck the larger smokestack in the 1990s, obliterating several feet of heavy bricks. Here, a number of these bricks have destroyed the roof of the morgue/pathology building.
A view of the physical plant (left) and coal house (right) from the roof of the morgue. In the distance, the maintenance building and the top of the nurses' residence are visible.
North Brother Island was remarkably self-sufficient; while it required that food and water be brought in, the former by ferry and the latter by pipeline, it was able to provide steam, electricity, and eventually, an internal telephone system and electrical fire alarm system. The physical plant contained all of the necessary machinery to power the island via coal, which was stored in a large building to the south of the plant. A separate ferry dock was built specifically for the quick importation of coal to the island.
The interior of the coal house, facing east.
A 1,000 lb scale in between the coal house and physical plant, presumably used to weigh coal.
The main building of the physical plant in winter.
A west-facing view of the interior of the physical plant; at the end are the southernmost boilers.
The northernmost boilers, two stories tall.
For Quarantine Alone
Island quarantine hospitals were a fairly common phenomenon in the 19th century through the middle of the 20th, and on the tip of Long Island, the US Government’s only quarantine facility for animal disease is still in operation on Plum Island. This usage makes sense – access to and from the island could be controlled, escape would be difficult, and it was correctly thought that the sources of contagion would not naturally pass over a body of water. Blackwell’s Island, later Welfare Island and now Roosevelt Island, housed a quarantine hospital known as Riverside, as well as the municipal insane asylum and other city facilities. Riverside Hospital, a smallpox hospital still partially extant and known as the Renwick Ruins after its architect, was overcrowded by the 1870s, and so a plan was put in place to build a new island hospital specifically for the quarantine of contagious disease.
Contrary to a persistent urban legend involving a Catholic orphanage or nunnery, North Brother Island was almost completely undeveloped when work began on it in the 1880s. The only structure present on the island when work began was a small shack. In 1885, the first patients were received at the second incarnation of Riverside Hospital. Various pavilions and tents were hastily constructed to segregate different diseases; smallpox, scarlet fever, tuberculosis, typhoid, diptheria, and even leprosy were demarcated on the island. The architecture was bland and utilitarian, and the treatment methodologies were primitive, but for the time being, the overcrowding on Blackwell’s Island was no longer an issue.
Other issues soon arose, however. It was difficult to find physicians willing to work shifts on the island, and at various times, the island might have been entirely without a true doctor – nurses would have to make do with what knowledge they had. Conditions on the island were rather dreadful. The early incarnation of the physical plant was not powerful enough to counter a bad winter, and thus the heat was rationed out; consequentially, death rates rose dramatically in the colder months. At various times, when weather did not permit the ferries to run, there were food shortages.
These issues, of course, were nonissues for the well-to-do, who could afford private care and thus would never set foot on the island. The indigent and immigrant populations, however, developed a healthy – but counterproductive – fear of the island. Because few came back from North Brother, and those that did told of deplorable conditions, many hid the fact that they were ill, and thus continued to act as vectors (infecting agents) for various contagions. Robert Martin, a merchant treated on the island, remarked that “the experience while there can be compared to the Black Hole of Calcutta” – this only 16 years after the facility opened. Thus, in 1902, the city began a campaign to change both the operation and the image of North Brother. Visitations were allowed, within reason, whereas previously they had been forbidden. Concrete and masonry pavilions replaced shoddy wooden buildings and tents. Doctors were available now at all times, and the nursing staff was bolstered. A telephone system was put into place, and connected with the City telephone system, allowing patients to have contact with relatives. Although the fear of the island was not eradicated, it was somewhat abated by these measures.
By 1914, the island primarily functioned to treat tuberculosis and venereal diseases. Smallpox had been eradicated in the United States by the late 1890s, and most other contagious diseases were treatable to the point that they could be handled by hospitals within the Boroughs. Tuberculosis, however, was still not well understood, and a great deal of stigma was attached to the illness. Thus, Riverside would be one of several island facilities in New York to treat the disease from the safe position of quarantine. Seaview Hospital on Staten Island, and buildings on Swinburne and Hoffman islands, would also provide quarantine facilities for the City. Treatment of tuberculosis would be the primary goal of North Brother Island between 1915 and its first closure in 1942.
Doctors' Cottage & Nurses' Residence
The western facade of the doctors' cottage, the interior of which is largely collapsed. The utilitarian municipal architecture has some nice flourishes, such as the third-floor dormers and romanesque entryway.
Second floor of the doctors' cottage, looking south into the collapsed western wing of the building.
A remarkably undisturbed room on the third floor of the southern wing of the building.
Although the wall of this bathroom floor has fallen away, the tub is still securely in place.
The pathway in between the doctors' cottage to the left, and the nurses' residence to the right.
The nurses' residence after a snowfall. Construction on this building was finished around 1904.
Main stairwell inside the western (middle) wing of the U-shaped nurses' building.
A typical two-room dorm inside the nurses' residence. One half provided sleeping quarters for 1 or 2 nurses, and the other half was a lounge area, with a private sink.
A sink and shelving unit which was a standard fixture in each quarters.
Each quarters has a knocker with a nameplate and room designation. This is room 212 in the north wing.
The courtyard in the middle of the residence, with a wraparound porch.
An iron spiral staircase on the eastern tip of the southern wing. This room was originally a screened-in porch.
A raptor found dessicated in one of the dormitories. North Brother Island has few food sources for land animals, but maintains a diverse population of birds.
The fourth-floor south hallway has suffered significant water damage, and will soon be impassible.
A room at the western tip of the southern wing contains an exam table.
The fourth floor landing of the southern staircase.
The southern facade of the building is completely covered in climbing vines such as kudzu. This invasive species, not native to the area, is threatening the trees and the heron population, as well as impacting the structural stability of the buildings.
A tennis court, across the road from the nurses' residence, dates back at least to the 1920s.
The General Slocum
In 1904, in one of the most catastrophic maritime events in US history, the PS General Slocum, a steamer built just over a decade previous, caught fire in the East River, eventually beaching on North Brother Island. Over a thousand people lost their lives in the disaster, which had a number of disparate causes.
The General Slocum was a passenger transport, and on June 14, 1904, it had been chartered by a church group consisting primarily of women and children for a picnic trip to Long Island. Shortly after disembarking, a fire broke out in one of the machine rooms. A young boy attempted to warn the ship’s crew, but he was ignored. It was fully 10 minutes after the fire started that the captain became aware of it. Instead of beaching the ship immediately, the captain continued on course, straight into the headwinds which were fanning the flames. The ship went up like tinder.
Poor maintenance on board the ship left it without any effective firefighting measures, and the manufacturer of the life preservers had cut costs, rendering them effectively useless – there are reports of mothers strapping their children in and tossing them into the water, only to watch in horror as the jackets bore the children under. The captain eventually beached the ship on North Brother Island; by this point, over 80% of the passengers and crew had died by fire or by drowning. The captain himself jumped ship and got on to the first available lifeboat; he was eventually convicted of criminal negligence and spent 3 years in Sing Sing. For hours after the tragedy, bodies continued to wash up on the shore of North Brother Island, and a number of photographs exist of the beach strewn with victims.
"Typhoid" Mary Mallon
The notion of a healthy carrier – a person who acts as a vector for a disease whilst remaining entirely or predominantly asymptomatic – is commonplace in the world of modern medicine. This was not the case a century ago, however, and this perhaps explains the strange and tragic case of Mary Mallon, known the world over as Typhoid Mary. An Irish immigrant who was likely a lifelong carrier of typhoid - her mother had suffered from the disease during the pregnancy - Mary herself never exhibited symptoms. And it was only by chance – and by the clever deductions of physician George Soper – that she was identified as a carrier, the first known case in history. Her own refusal to acknowledge this fact led to two involuntary stays on North Brother Island; the first would last from 1907 to 1910, and the second would last from 1915 until her death in 1938.
Mary was a cook by trade; she worked for a number of families in New York and out on Long Island. Several of these families were mysteriously stricken with typhoid fever over the seven year period she was active, between 1900 and 1907. Soper realized that a previously unknown factor could be at work – Mary could be spreading the bacteria without falling ill herself. When she was approached with this possibility, Mary grew defensive and angry; from her point of view, it didn’t make sense that she could spread the contagion yet not be sick herself.
In 1907, Soper published his research nonetheless, and Mary was seized by the city police and exiled to North Brother Island. Still convinced that she could not possibly be transmitting the disease, she fought for three years to be allowed back to the mainland. Finally, in 1910, she agreed to a proposal by the New York City Health Department that she would not work as a cook, and that she would take all possible hygienic measures to ensure no further cases could be attributed to her. She was allowed to depart North Brother in February of that year.
But she remained unconvinced that she was a vector for the bacterium, and continued her generally unhygienic practices. When she found her salary as a laundress to be significantly lower than what she had made as a cook, she took the pseudonym Mary Brown and began working as a cook in a hospital. Due to her generally poor sanitary habits, she quickly caused another outbreak at the hospital, which infected two dozen people, killing one. City health officials quickly tracked her down, and she was returned to North Brother, this time for the remainder of her life – over two decades on 20 acres of land. She had her own cottage, and eventually began socializing in the Nurses’ Residence and working in the pathology lab (both pictured above). In 1938, Mary died of a stroke. Her cottage was bulldozed, being cluttered and unsanitary to the point that people were afraid to enter the structure. Live typhoid cultures were found during her autopsy.
A former childrens' ward was converted to a library when Riverside became a rehabilitation hospital.
The maintenance building contains general odds and ends; here, some keys sit next to a chemical stalagmite.
An old phonebook in the maintenance building is still relatively intact.
Before abandonment of the island, the altarpiece from the chapel was removed to the maintenance building, where it still sits on a table.
The second chapel, made of wood, has almost completely collapsed; all that remains standing is the wall and entryway to the west.
A great deal of infrastructure remains on the island. Lampposts, telephone poles, manholes, roads with curbs, and so on all exist, although most are buried in bushes or covered in vines. Here, a fire hydrant is relatively undisturbed.
Riverside Hospital stopped functioning as a quarantine hospital in 1942. It was, for a short time, abandoned, before finding a brief use as housing for World War Two veterans studying at New York colleges. It was serviced by two ferries that would regularly stop at the western slip, but this use proved inefficient and expensive, and when cheaper housing was obtained, the island was once again abandoned. In 1952, it would reopen under the final incarnation of Riverside Hospital – as an experimental juvenile drug treatment facility offered as an alternative to incarceration.
It is interesting to note that the tuberculosis pavilion, built in 1941, was never in fact used to treat tubercular patients. The island was abandoned, and all patients suffering from this disease were moved to alternate municipal facilities. The TB hospital found its first use as a dormitory, and then became the main residence and treatment building for Riverside Hospital’s drug treatment program. The doors to many of the rooms were retrofitted into seclusion rooms with sheet metal reinforcement and heavy deadbolts; these rooms are iconic in discussing the failed experiment in drug treatment undertaken on North Brother, as they spoke to the initial withdrawal management.
A patient, newly arrived at Riverside Hospital and addicted to heroin, would be placed in one of these rooms with no conveniences except for a bare mattress and a mess bucket. They would be forced to undergo withdrawal in the seclusion room without any palliatives; medicine was only given in situations deemed to be life-threatening. After several days, when withdrawal was complete, the patient would be introduced into the general population.
It was believed that this harsh return to reality, followed up by a stay of no less than 90 days on the island, and bolstered by athletics and education, would provide the best chance against relapse. To this end, all of the buildings on the island were remade; the services building became the school, the nurses’ residence became the girls’ dormitory, and the tuberculosis pavilion became the admissions hospital and boys’ residence. The building next to the TB pavilion – originally a childrens’ ward – was remade into a library and annex to the school.
The optimism of the founders of this new program was quickly shattered, however. Recidivism rates were extremely high, and even within a militaristic island hospital designed with quarantine in mind, patients were still finding means of obtaining and using drugs within the hospital. There are accounts of boyfriends making the trip across the Hell Gate in order to visit in the middle of the night; accounts of orderlies getting paid in cigarettes to smuggle heroin on the ferries; accounts of physical and sexual abuse on and by patients. Official literature from the last few years of the program reads as more and more desperate; meanwhile, the city prepared to shutter Riverside entirely. In 1963, the island was abandoned for the third and final time.
Tuberculosis Pavilion & School
The front of the 1941 tuberculosis pavilion.
A reception area in the central administrative portion of the pavilion.
A hallway inside the pavilion.
An x-ray room within the first floor medical wing of the pavilion. To the right is the control room. The tiles here have fallen away to reveal walls lined with integral lead blocks.
The remains of one of the x-ray apparati.
An airy dayroom at the end of the south wing speaks to the pavilion's original purpose as a ward for TB patients.
The building features two of these large bathtubs.
The utilitarian main stairwell in the center of the building.
A view down the southern stairwell.
The exterior of one of the seclusion rooms. This is the only such room which does not have an extra layer of sheet metal over the door.
The deadbolts were retrofitted when the hospital was repurposed as a rehabilitation facility. This seclusion room door has two locks to ensure that even the strongest patient cannot escape, and is reinforced with sheet metal.
The interior of a seclusion room. A heavy mesh screen, added after the initial construction, protects the windows from the withdrawing patient. A window provides a view into the room from the nurses' station, so that the patient is visible at all times during their withdrawal.
A chain and lock secure the screen that bars access to the windows.
Several murals are still visible on the second floor, although most of them have been punched through, presumably by vandals in the 1970s when it was popular to sneak onto the island by boat.
On one of the murals, a patient has written a vulgar poem expressing his feelings about the institution.
Originally designated the "Services Building", this building was referred to as the "School" after the hospital reopened in 1952.
While being altered to function as a school, shoddy construction techniques were employed for the partitioning. Here, the main hallway is askew under the weight of the metal beams in the wall.
The principal's office; here, the door is helping to stop the wall from falling over further.
The auditorium boasted a number of seats and a small stage.
The gymnasium, built in the hopes that athleticism could help overcome addiction.
The lavatory behind the basketball backboard. This area has suffered significant water damage.
Although most of the schoolrooms have been stripped bare, this printing press remains.
The window has fallen out of the wall in this science classroom.
Riverside Hospital, in each of its incarnations and with its shifting goals, was always an optimistic undertaking with underwhelming results. The cost of running a quarantine hospital on an island, along with advances in medicine and poor living conditions, outmoded the facility to the point that it closed. In its later life, it was a valiant attempt by some high-minded individuals to treat another societal ill, that of drug abuse. But once again, poor conditions and institutionalized corruption led to its closure. In both cases, the patients were generally poor, and generally confined to the island against their will, though in both cases their confinement was supposed to be for the greater good of society. This sentiment seems fitting:
Found on the wall in one of the seclusion rooms in the TB pavilion, it was certainly the writing of one of the youthful drug offenders in the last months of Riverside’s functioning. But it could just as easily have been written 78 years earlier, by an immigrant confined for displaying signs of diptheria just as the hospital opened, or perhaps in the 1930s by Mary Mallon. The one thing uniting almost all patients in the various versions of Riverside that existed is that they did not wish to be there; they were being treated for socially stigmatized diseases and disorders, by a society that kept them against their will. Whether the end result was positive or negative is a question for history to decide.
Today, North Brother Island looks more or less as seen in the photographs shown here, and in some cases, worse. There are no plans to rehabilitate the buildings or reuse the island; it will remain under the jurisdiction of the New York City Parks Department, and will remain a bird sanctuary. In another year or two, the fourth floor of the nurses’ residence will be inaccessible. It won’t be long before the doctors’ cottage finishes falling in upon itself, much as the lighthouse and chapel have already done. The TB pavilion, constructed with more modern techniques and materials, will be around a good while longer. Meanwhile, the pundits can debate whether or not the island has accomplished more good or ill for society; one thing that is beyond debate is the fact that the island has a unique and fascinating history, and one that should not be forgotten.
The gantry crane at sunset; a rainbow behind a cloud gives the appearance of a second sun.
I would ask anybody with a personal connection to the island – patients, staff, the children thereof – to please email me with your story; eventually, I’d like to turn this study into a larger-scope project, and reveal more about the history of the Island.