Friday, December 8, 2017

Return Visit: North Brother Island in the Summer

The small transformer room and storage building located right off the gantry crane is almost entirely obscured by the swells of kudzu and other climbing vines that have invaded the island. [Print]

A Return to the Island - and a Return to the Lounge

My longtime readers have probably noticed, and perhaps been frustrated by, the fact that this blog has been on hiatus for over 3 years.  In a sense, The Kingston Lounge (the blog) has been abandoned in much the same manner as the Kingston Lounge (the historic jazz club in Brooklyn) was abandoned decades ago.  These things happen; places are vacated for a variety of reasons, and life was the main reason in this case.  In the interim period, I:
  - Moved down to North Carolina for a year to study abandoned mills, schools, and Southern culture in general
  - Then moved to Upstate New York for a spell, to work on my book on Buffalo State Hospital, planning to return to Brooklyn in early 2015
  - Planned and executed a TEDx Talk on stigma and misconceptions in the study of the American asylum, as well as on my own entry into the world of urban archaeology
  - Fell in love, got engaged, finally returned to Brooklyn, set up a wonderful household, and got married

Basically, I got busy, and the Lounge was temporarily boarded up.  But unlike the building for which it was named, the Lounge has not been abandoned for decades, and now the Lounge is reopening, with only minor water damage to the ceilings, and minimal peeling paint on the walls!  Expect regular postings once again, starting with this one - a return visit to North Brother Island in summer, featuring new photographs taken after the publication of the original article from 2011.

A Summer Return to North Brother Island

It is quite difficult to gain access to North Brother Island.  More so during the summer months, which are generally considered nesting season for the black-crowned night herons that (sometimes) call the island "home".  Even employees of the NYC Parks Department are forbidden from setting foot on the island during this time, so it is rare to experience Riverside Hospital when it is at its most verdant - and also, its most overgrown.  However, I was lucky enough to gain access once - and so here's a look around the island over the course of a single hot summer day.  As there's already a detailed history of the quarantine hospital on the main blog post for North Brother Island, this companion piece will be narrated more as a sort of travelogue, as I dictate my movements, missteps, and mosquito bites over the course of the exhilarating trip.

Foliage was creeping into the first-floor hallway of the Morgue and Pathology Lab building, as bright morning sun shone in from the eastern door. [Print]

The pathology building, originally a small masonry chapel, had changed little over the years; the stairwell - pictured above - was a little more rusted out and treacherous than it had been, and there was more fallen plaster, as one would expect, but it was the same as I remembered it.  I quickly moved on to the path outside of the eastern door, eager to return to the ruins of the final, wooden chapel.

This is all that remains of the chapel - a pile of wood, the wall of the front facade, and a tiny little alcove leading to the front door of the building. [Print]

The final chapel constructed on the island was a primarily wooden structure meant to accommodate the increased number of people requiring its services; it was either the second or third building dedicated to worship constructed on the quarantine island.  Contradictory reports and obscured, inaccessible (or lost) records make it most difficult to discern the actuality of the number.  After 50 years of abandonment it was a shambles, and also apparently a mosquito breeding ground - which struck me as odd, given that there are barely any mammalian life forms on the Island.  In any case, in the early morning light hit the last standing facade quite beautifully from the east, accentuating the climbing vines that had already reached the space where the roof should be attached.

The tiny atrium at the front of the chapel, with the morning sun coming in from the East. [Print]

After walking around the structure a few times with my traveling companion, and swatting away a few more flying pests, it was time to move on.

The path to the coal house and physical plant from the chapel was completely overgrown. [Print]

Fighting one's way through a rough mix - mostly kudzu with a smattering of flowering plants, thorny vines, and the occasional poison ivy patch - isn't a whole lot of fun.  However the sight of the former building, alongside the smokestack of the latter, was quite breathtaking.  One can almost imagine that, at some future date when the human race is extinct, everything will look a lot like this - crumbling ruins, slowly being overtaken by vines.  After a spell, I fought my way back to one of my favorite parts of Riverside Hospital - the physical plant.

The two-story-tall western boiler hall in the physical plant. [Print]

The eastern coal ovens and pipeworks. [Print]

What struck me immediately about the main building of the steam plant was how much more vibrant it seemed when full of ferns, vines, red brick, and asbestos-and-algae-covered pipes reflecting the blue of the skies.  I always enjoy industrial sites; I don't always find them beautiful.  On this day, they were quite beautiful.

A wooden shadowboard has somehow survived over half a century of exposure to the elements. [Print]

While poking around the physical plant looking for interesting things that I had not previously photographed, or which looked better in this light, something struck me - having observed the physical presence of the plant from the outside, as well as the presence of a door from the outside which appeared to lead to a collapsed stairwell, might I have missed something on over a dozen previous trips out to the Island?  Something was nagging me.  I noticed that the roof had fallen in part of the hallway between the main chamber of the plant and the refrigeration room, and realized that it led into an upstairs hallway - an area of the building I had not yet seen!  Carefully climbing up using a series of pipes, conduits, and so-on affixed to the wall, I managed to squeeze myself through the gap in the ceiling...

The second-story workers' break room, with a pillow and some personal effects shelves and lockers. [Print]

...and I found myself at the entrance to a workers' break room, with walls and floors tilting and bending in various directions, as if concocted by the designers of a 1930s Coney Island funhouse.  A pillow on the ground suggests that workers might have napped in here; large cupboards held supplies, and smaller shelves and lockers could store personal effects.  A corner closet had a bar for hanging clothes.  It's always interesting to find areas like this - focused on the people who worked at the hospital, rather than on the patients or the medical care given there.  But it was time to press on.

The cistern behind the physical plant, filled with water from recent rains, with the boys' dormitory in the background almost obscured by flora. [Print]

I climbed back down through the opening and found my way out through the rear door of the plant, finally catching an interesting shot of the water collection cistern in the rear of the facility.  While Riverside Hospital had two water mains coming in from the mainland, this cistern could be relied upon as a quick water source both for steam generation and for fire prevention in the event of emergency.  The boys' dormitory was behind the cistern, and I took a quick poke into there.

Library in the repurposed boys' dormitory in 1953, when Riverside Hospital was converted into a drug rehabilitation center for juvenile offenders. [Print]

The green leaves outside painted the light green as it shone into the library in the boys' dormitory, creating a wonderful color cast on the long-mouldering books donated to the hospital by the Queensboro Public Library.  As usual, this room was the only real attraction in this building, and I moved onward.

Tennis court in summer. [Print]

The tennis court was almost unrecognizable as such; only the poles that once held the nets gave any indication of what it had been many years prior.  Across the ivy-shrouded street was the doctors' cottage - I took a quick look around inside.

Central staircase, doctors' cottage. [Print]

Ironically, on previous visits to the island I was unable to get a clean shot of the central staircase in this building because it hadn't disintegrated enough - the floor was gone where I stood to take this photo, and a bunch of junk hung from a ceiling above that was ready to collapse.  On this visit, however, the ceiling had collapsed - which effectively created a few 2x4s that I could place across the gap to get a good angle on the staircase and front door.  The rest of the building, same as it ever was, didn't warrant much more consideration, and I moved on to the school and services building.

What remains of what was labeled on some recovered blueprints as the "science classroom". [Print]

One of the bizarrely narrow corridors on the second story of the school, converted through the addition of cheap panel walls from the original services building. [Print]

The school / services building was more or less the same as it ever was, much like the doctors' cottage.  However, the yellow-green cast that the foliage provided to the window light added some interesting effects; I stopped for a handful of photographs, and then moved on to traipse about the woods for a bit.

The crumbling remains of the garage. [Print]

One building I omitted from my original blog post, both because the article was already getting overly long and because I find it ugly and hard to photograph, is the remains of the garage structure.  This small wooden facade and one brick wall are all that remain of it; whether it fell in upon itself or was demolished is anybody's guess.  On this particular day, the vibrant contrast of the greens of the building and woods surrounding and the orange-reds of the remaining brick and deadfall made for a more interesting take.  This building was, as one would expect, used to store the two utility vehicles which could transport passengers along the roads on the island.  I got my penultimate mosquito bite here, and then headed on over to my favorite building on what would be the last stop of the day - the nurses' building.

The lobby of the nurses' building, with the fireplace removed and most of the plasterwork having fallen. [Print]

There was little new to note in this building - because most of it was boarded off, as it was the first building abandoned, little of the "summer light" came through, and most of it looked just as it always had.  Still, I wandered the length and breadth of the place, finding a few new things here and there.

A pitch-black room showed some "interesting" decorating choices (that is to say, pink drywall) when artificially lit by a series of LED panels. [Print]

More of the ceiling had collapsed in this top-floor room, leading to significant plant growth on the floor. [Print]

I received my fifth (and final) mosquito bite in the room pictured above, which once again caused the thought to pass through my brain - why mosquitos on an island that seems entirely lacking in mammals for them to pray upon?  Whose blood are they sucking (besides mine)?  After this needless pondering, I realized that it was almost time to pack up and meet at the rendezvous point near the gantry, so I ended my travels at my personal favorite place on the island - the iron spiral staircase at the southeast corner of the building, second floor.

With the yellow-green light filtering in from the windows with boards that had thankfully vanished somehow, the rotted-out iron staircase took on a whole new character than that seen on previous visits. [Print]