At the turn of the twentieth century, tuberculosis was the second leading cause of death in the city and a major world health concern known to disproportionately affect the urban poor. In New York City, two-thirds of the 30,000 afflicted were dependent on city agencies for treatment. Growing concern from charitable organizations spurred the establishment of New York’s first public hospital designed exclusively to treat tuberculosis, care for the “sick, poor, and friendless,” and keep the epidemic under some measure of control by isolating sufferers from general hospitals.
If you were diagnosed with tuberculosis in the early 1900s, your prognosis was grim. Lacking a cure, the only treatments thought to ease symptoms were fresh air, rest, sunshine, and good nutrition. A pleasant view was also considered essential for staving off depression. For this reason, hospital planners settled on a privately owned 25-acre hilltop parcel in rural Staten Island called “Ocean View,” just across from the already established New York City Farm Colony. The plot was surrounded by a vast expanse of forested land (known as the Greenbelt today) which enabled the hospital grounds to expand as necessary.
When Sea View Hospital was dedicated on November 12, 1913, the New York Times called it “the largest and finest hospital ever built for the care and treatment of those who suffer from tuberculosis.” The Commissioner of Public Charities claimed it was “a magnificent institution that is vast, ingenious, practical, convenient, sanitary, and beautiful, the greatest hospital ever planned in the world wide fight against the “white plague.” Though the new facilities effectively eased the suffering of tuberculosis patients and provided housing for the poor, little could be done to actually save lives in the long term. Most eventually succumbed to the disease.
In 1943, the development of the antibiotic streptomycin at Rutgers University led to a series of breakthroughs in the treatment of tuberculosis over the next decade, and much of that research took place at Sea View Hospital. The enthusiasm over these dramatic developments is captured in a 1952 report by the Department of Hospitals: “Euphoria swept Seaview Hospital. Patients consigned to death at the hands of the White Plague celebrated a new lease on life by dancing in the halls.” The transition was swift. By 1961, Sea View’s pavilions were practically emptied as patients miraculously recovered as a result of the new therapies.
Today, a long-term care facility operates in several of the buildings and some structures have been repurposed by community agencies and civic groups, but much of the Sea View Hospital campus lies abandoned. Past a fenced enclosure delineating the active section of the hospital, the grounds give way to the bramble-choked wilds of the Staten Island Greenbelt. The creepy ruins of the old women’s pavilions situated on the northern border are a popular detour on hikes from the neighboring boy scout camp.
To the east lies the imposing Children’s Hospital, completed in 1938 and abandoned in 1974. Its spacious, window-lined solariums are typical of earlier Sea View wards, flanked on either side by open-air porches which were occupied by recovering patients 24 hours a day during the height of the epidemic. In an otherwise clinical Landmarks Preservation Commission report published in 1985, the researcher notes that “the building rises from a deep slope… Wooded surroundings, particularly dense to the east and south of the building, enhance the sense of isolation.” The view he’s describing is indeed one of New York City’s most surreal (pictured below in 2012).
Reuse of the structure seems extremely unlikely given the large number of abandoned buildings within the active hospital complex that would make better candidates for restoration. Area conservationists are fighting to keep the surrounding woodlands protected from developers by making it a permanent part of the Greenbelt network of natural areas, and the building itself is nominally protected from demolition as part of Sea View Hospital’s historic district designation.
That doesn’t mean that the building won’t serve a purpose as it continues to crumble. As I’ve mentioned in previous posts, Staten Island teenagers have a long history of voraciously exploring (and vandalizing) their local ruins. With the renovation of the Willowbrook State School in the 1990s, the later demolition of the Staten Island Monastery, and the impending restoration of the New York City Farm Colony, the isolated, under-the-radar Children’s Hospital may be next in line as the site of that requisite rite of passage. Only time will tell.
IN OTHER NEWS… my friend Oriana Leckert‘s book “Brooklyn Spaces” is out this week. We’re a bit like kindred spirits, Oriana and I, but she goes more for the crowded, lively, and creative than the empty, eerie, and decrepit.
The (50!) places profiled in the book show the authentic, human side of the global phenomenon that is “Brooklyn cool,” highlighting the heartfelt endeavors of a wave of culture makers that migrated to the borough for cheap rent and fashioned a network of bustling performance venues, art enclaves, and meeting places out of Brooklyn’s post-industrial landscape. Her obvious passion for offbeat museums, community gardens, communal living spaces, and out-there artist residencies is beyond infectious.
Lately the lack of abandoned buildings in the five boroughs has had me ruin-hunting on the distant shores of New Jersey and the Hudson River Valley. But all the while there was something incredible hiding in plain sight just a ten minute walk from my apartment. Just when it seems there is nothing left to find, this city will surprise you.
I had admired the building for some time, having first spotted it on a walk around my neighborhood a year or two ago. It was obviously some long-forgotten industrial relic, with a rather plain, but towering, facade. I had never heard of the place and could only find a single picture of it on the world wide web, with nothing of the interior. It seemed, at the time, that this could be one of the exceedingly rare “undiscovered” abandoned buildings in New York City. Who knew what it might look like inside? Most likely an empty shell, I thought, or else I would have heard of it.
It lingered long in my daydreams through the coming months, but I never attempted to stop in until December, when out of the blue I found myself walking in the direction of that mysterious building, camera and flashlight in hand. Inside, I couldn’t make out much at all but a collapsing ceiling and a floor padded with decades of rust and grime. I went looking for a way to the next level, finding several impassible staircases before settling on one that was relatively intact. Upstairs, I treaded over some rickety catwalks and continued into the main room.
With coal crunching underfoot, I gazed up at the grand four-story gallery of rusted machinery before me. It was likely about a century old, gleaming orange in its old age, scattered here and there with flecks of sunlight cast through the broken windowpanes on the south side of the hall. A hulking configuration of steel beams suspended over all, looking unmistakably like a man doing a jumping jack. Its actual function remains a mystery to me.
Judging by the amount of graffiti, I wasn’t even close to being the first person to find this place, and others have informed me that it’s fairly well-known among diehard explorers. After some careful inspection, it appears that some (though not all) of the graffiti is quite old, I’d guess from the late 70s and 80s judging by the style, and the way in which it has aged, rusting or peeling away with underlying layers of paint and metal.
Paper records from inside the building point to the year 1963 as the last time the plant was in operation. My theory is that the building had been abandoned and left pretty vulnerable to trespassers for a couple of decades before being sealed up tightly some time in the 80s or 90s. Until recently, it’s been relatively untouched since those days, making it something of a time capsule of a grittier New York. Prior to being secured, part of the ground floor was apparently used as a chop shop. An abandoned and gutted automobile had been walled in at some point, entombed like a mosquito in amber on the ground floor.
I can only speculate about what the building was actually used for. My guess would be a coal-burning power plant of some kind, though some artifacts refer to it as a “pump house.” I could tell you a bit more about its history but I don’t want to give away too much. “Undiscovered” or not, this place is still pretty under the radar, and I’d like to keep it that way for now.
A heartfelt thank you goes out to everyone who’s picked up a copy of my book, and for all of your thoughtful comments.
If you haven’t gotten yours yet, you can head over to abandonednycbook.com to order a signed copy and a free print directly from me, which is the best way to support what I do. (You can also get them on Amazon if you want to save a few bucks.)
It was so great meeting some of you at my Red Room talk last week. If you couldn’t make it to that one, you can still stop by one of these events this month and get your book that way. Hope to see you there!
Not long ago, a pack of teenage runaways lived the dream in Gowanus’ infamous Batcave, shacking up rent-free in an abandoned MTA powerhouse on the shore of the notoriously toxic Gowanus Canal. Out of the grime, in back rooms and crooked halls, the artifacts of this sizable squatter settlement remain to enlighten, amuse, and unnerve the intrepid few that enter the disreputable interior.
The old Central Power Station of the Brooklyn Rapid Transit Company was built in 1896 to serve a rapidly expanding subway system in the outer boroughs, positioned on the banks of the Gowanus Canal to ensure an efficient intake of coal to power an arsenal of 32 boilers and eight 4,000 horsepower steam-driven generators. The plant’s technology couldn’t keep up with the times, and after a brief second life as a paper recycling plant, the powerhouse was abandoned. Today, it’s more commonly known as the “Batcave,” supposedly named for the creatures that once congregated in its broken-down ceiling.
In the early 2000s, a colony of homeless young people settled inside the building, establishing a thriving, peaceable community. At onset, the squat held a positive reputation, kept under the watchful eye of a few individuals who ensured hard drugs and detrimental criminal activities were kept out. After a drunken rooftop incident, authorities were notified and made their first attempt to evict the punk-rock squatters, leaving the colony without its guardians.
Over the next two years, heroin use and overdose grew rampant, and a wave of brutality overwhelmed the Batcave. Drug-induced violence culminated in a series of nightmarish events; one homeless man was thrown from a window, another overdosed and was left on the street for law enforcement to find. Frightened community members saw to it that the Batcave colony was ousted indefinitely in 2006.
The residents are long gone, but most of their humble furnishings remain. Some living quarters, fashioned in old corner offices of the power plant, are generously sized, complete with beds, bookshelves, and lounge chairs. Others are no larger than a closet; album covers, skulls and superheroes, and a general state of chaos are prominent features of these impromptu bedrooms.
Prized possessions—a VHS copy of the Nightmare Before Christmas, a dogeared paperback edition of Hamlet—molder in the damp with shampoo bottles, plastic toys, and stockpiles of hypodermic needles. Stuffed animals are the most abundant, and telling artifacts. Once treasured, these hulking teddy bears, leather-clad Elmo dolls, and freaky Fisher-Price robots lie mired in filth, decapitated or gutted and hung from strings.
While large-scale pieces by notable graffiti artists dominate the Batcave’s main hall, the more intriguing artworks can be found on the bedroom walls. Always obscene, typically humorous, and occasionally clever, these amateur scrawls portray a community of fun-loving, hard-living, creative youth, although some inscriptions tend toward the dark and morbid, pointing to a deep resentment for society and obsessions with dying and suicide.
It’s no wonder so many lost souls found solace here—just look up. The Batcave’s eye-popping top floor certainly feels like a sanctuary. Light rain filters down from a collapsed ceiling, atomized to a sweeping mist. In a permanent puddle, arched reflections of the clerestory windows tremble. Pleated ceiling panels once muffled the hum and hiss of a mammoth industrial undertaking, but their effect is more visual now. Interweaving supports shimmer like the facets of a diamond as you move through the space—it’s a crustpunk kaleidoscope that constitutes one of the most spectacular abandoned sights in New York City.
For all the atmosphere of grime and decay, the Batcave gives an impression of a living space that, though not well kept, was certainly well loved. It isn’t difficult to imagine a time when this damp industrial shell was filled with warmth and welcome, or to imagine its occupants, in those first idyllic months, brimming with a sense of ownership and control, invulnerable to the pressures of parents and policemen.
The fate of the Batcave lies in the balance of Gowanus’ contentious transition from industrial wasteland to trendy residential neighborhood. Numerous plans have emerged for the development of the property, but the canal’s recent Superfund designation and an uncertain future for the game-changing Whole Foods development across the street has deterred potential investors from shelling out the millions necessary to renovate the structure and rehabilitate its environmentally hazardous grounds. Through an overgrown lot in the height of Spring, the dilapidated redbrick facade remains a sight to behold, concealing a sordid wonderland within, marking the spot where a youthful dream lived, and died.
UPDATE Nov 23, 2012: The Batcave property sold for $7 million to philanthropist Joshua Rechnitz. The building will be saved, and renovated into art studios and exhibition space. Read the New York Times article here.