Abandoned, Hospitals

Navigating the Sailor’s Infirmary


The Sailor’s Infirmary

In 1831, “An Act to Provide for Sick and Disabled Seamen” was passed by the New York State Legislature.  A tract of farmland was acquired for the purpose, and by 1837, a proper hospital was constructed, funded by a head-tax imposed on sailors entering the Port of New York. The intention was admirable and the structure was impressive. Looking at the distinctively 19th-century facade of the old Sailor’s Infirmary today, it’s easy to imagine the place brimming with leathery old salts in their twilight years, regaling each other with adventures at sea that’d put Herman Melville to shame.

In those days, the porticos of the Infirmary offered commanding views of the New York Harbor and the surrounding countryside.  In 1862, the Infirmary’s Chief Physician rhapsodized on the subject: “the weary invalid can breathe the bracing air of the sea…the sight of his chosen element, covered with the white winged messengers of a world-wide commerce that fills his mind with hope and cheer.” 

Today, its pastoral surroundings have been swallowed up by development, the “white-winged messengers” have vanished from the harbor, and the halls of the hospital no longer resound with tales of youthful exploits in the exotic port cities of the world.  Instead, a fire alarm near the front door blares interminably, to nobody at all.

The hospital as it appeared in the 1887.

The hospital as it appeared in 1887.

Expansive porches provided views of the harbor to ailing seamen.

Expansive porches provided views of the harbor to ailing seamen.

While the idea of a hospital for sailors might seem odd to the modern observer, there was an urgent need for this sort of specialized care in the 19th century, when sailing was a much more common occupation and working conditions were deplorable.  The Infirmary’s first Chief Physician described the health of a newly admitted patient in 1838 as such: “Arrived last night on brig from round Cape Horn…Has been to sea 118 days and had nothing but indifferent salt food to feed upon…Twenty days after sailing his gums became sore and spongy and bled very freely…Around the small of each leg caked hard and over the instep a deep blue almost black color…Suffered universal pain…Very much prostrated and emaciated and was brought into the (Infirmary)…Had no lime juice on board nor any other antiscorbutic effectual in preventing scurvy…It is in this shameful manner vessels are provided to the destruction of seamen…An object of pity to behold.” 

In addition to advocating for better living and working conditions for seamen, the Sailor’s Infirmary made a lasting impact on world health as the birthplace of one of the most formidable biomedical research facilities in the world.  In 1887, a young doctor founded a one-room bacteriological laboratory in the attic of the hospital to investigate epidemics like cholera and yellow fever.  Over the course of the 20th century, his humble “Laboratory of Hygiene” evolved into a federally-funded research initiative that still operates today with an annual budget of $30 billion.  Needless to say, it outgrew the attic long ago.


Researchers at work in the attic’s “Laboratory of Hygiene” (1887)


The attic as it appears today.  The area was renovated in 1912.

Over the course of the 20th century the infirmary greatly expanded its services, and the campus grew to include a seven-story hospital and multiple ancillary buildings, dwarfing the original structure in the process.  Under federal ownership, the grounds served military families, veterans, and later the general public.  An organization of the Catholic medical system took over in 1981, and the hospital’s focus pivoted to psychiatric care and addiction rehabilitation.  In recent years, the campus has been racked with financial problems, and its services have been consolidated to a few floors of the main hospital building.  The rest of the complex sits abandoned, facing an uncertain future despite multiple landmark designations.

Like many grand, old buildings, the 1837 Infirmary appears to have been shut down from the top down.  Dental clinics and early childhood programs lingered into the early 2000s on the lower floors, while the top floor sat unused for decades.  Today, the interior is largely empty and plain—drop ceilings and fluorescent lights abound.  But the attic retains a much older patina, and a few odd relics that feel fantastically out of step with the modern trappings below.

(Note: This is one of those rare abandoned buildings that isn’t vandalized beyond all recognition.  In the hopes of keeping it that way I’ve chosen not to disclose its actual name and location, or to identify some key elements of its history.)


Teddy bear wallpaper and faux stained glass in an area used as a preschool.


Old hand painted lettering exposed under layers of chipped paint.


I’m not sure what the artist was going for here.  Abstract rendering of a barn?


A bit of ornamentation was still visible on the stairs.


Upstairs in the attic, a fascinating pedal-operated sewing machine.


Mouldering files in the south wing.


Solid wood wardrobes were far older than furniture on the lower floors.


A red door led into a utility room.

Storage spaces in the attic held a number of intriguing artifacts.

Storage spaces in the attic held a number of intriguing artifacts.


Including a set of 1940s dental chairs.


In other news…  I’ve got a new website that just went live.  Head over to www.willellisphoto.com for a look at some of my other photo projects, plus a sampling of  the work I do for a living (shooting non-abandoned architecture and interiors.)  You can also sign up for my newsletter if you’re so inclined, or buy a book.  (They’re 10% OFF with the code “ANYC.”)

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18 thoughts on “Navigating the Sailor’s Infirmary

  1. Hi Will Ellis, Tis a pity that this hospital is in its present state!  When it was ___________, at least it was being somewhat maintained.  I had outpatient surgeries there.  Whenever I passby it, I become saddened!  The city is considering using the site,if I remember correctly, as an educational campus.   Best,Claudia Toback   Cititrek Tour & Guide Serviceshttp://www.cititrek.com


    Posted by Claude Toback | 3-7-16., 11:50 am
    • Thanks for reading, Claudia! It really is a shame, it’s one of the most beautiful buildings in the borough. Luckily it’s still in pretty good shape structurally–it would make an excellent college campus.

      Hope you don’t mind I edited your comment so as not to reveal the location of the building. (that helps keep the vandalism in check)


      Posted by Will Ellis | 3-7-16., 12:07 pm
  2. This place is soooooo cool!


    On Mon, Mar 7, 2016 at 8:24 AM, AbandonedNYC wrote:

    > Will Ellis posted: ” In 1831, “An Act to Provide for Sick and Disabled > Seamen” was passed by the New York State Legislature. A tract of farmland > was acquired for the purpose, and by 1837, a proper > hospital was constructed, funded by a head-tax imposed on sailors entering > t” >

    Liked by 1 person

    Posted by Tammy Miller | 3-7-16., 11:53 am
  3. As usual, I really enjoyed the photos of the Sailor’s Infirmary. Thank you!


    Posted by Pam | 3-7-16., 1:26 pm
  4. thank you. fascinating, as usual. http://www.jillgill.net see my Lost New York paintings, my way of preserving what has been lost. all best. >

    Liked by 1 person

    Posted by Jill Gill | 3-7-16., 2:59 pm
  5. Thank you so much for your work and your respect for trying to preserve it but not giving pertinent information.. It is always great to know there are such professionals around.

    Liked by 1 person

    Posted by lindyki | 3-7-16., 3:16 pm
  6. My first time reading and viewing your blog. I loved it and look forward to more.


    Posted by mrsammy7 | 3-7-16., 3:19 pm
  7. Hey Will, another fascinating post, well done. Your “work” site is very nice…are some of those interiors of your home??? Many thanks….


    Posted by Frank Brennan | 3-7-16., 6:38 pm
  8. I’m always intrigued by the sites that used to be hospitals. There are so many medical or personnel files abandoned at these places. I wonder why no one bothered to shred them before leaving? It makes me feel a little sad at the thought of all that work that doctors or nurses put in to keeping those files, and the many lives gone, represented by those files that are now just abandoned.

    Whenever I see something like that in your photos it reminds me of a job I used to have microfilming old patient files for doctor’s offices. Those of us prepping and filming these files were allowed to discuss anything we might have seen in them as long as we only used the patient’s first names. My favorite one was a file on an elderly woman. Her doctor wrote in one part of her file: “Mary is here today and she is her usual cheerful demented self”.

    I always look forward to your abandoned blog posts. Love the photos.


    Posted by Fawn Liebowitz | 3-7-16., 9:23 pm
  9. I love the fact that you did not mention the location. Also glad that other websites are following your footsteps, vandalism is a horrible thing, especially when it is done in places with such historical value. If I ever come across this place I will be sure to check it out and get some quick snap shots, the place looks amazing. Thank you for sharing.


    Posted by Afnan | 3-14-16., 4:12 am
  10. This spot is not too far away from me. I took some photos inside of it last year shocked that it wasn’t vandalized at all. Real beautiful building


    Posted by inkvillain | 3-22-16., 3:43 pm
  11. I’ve been here, I thought it was called Bayley Seton, though!


    Posted by Anonymous | 10-4-16., 8:23 pm


  1. Pingback: An Abandoned Sailor’s Infirmary in NYC Where Cholera Bacteria Was Discovered | Untapped Cities - 3-10-16.

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