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. Do yourself a favor and pick up a copy! And head to what I’m sure will be a raucous, sweaty launch party on May 30th.
Part of what makes abandoned buildings so captivating is that their existence is ephemeral, they cannot remain decayed and crumbling forever, and inevitably that means saying goodbye.
Admittedly, the Staten Island Farm Colony is not one of the most spectacular places I’ve seen, (the interiors have been completely destroyed by vandalism) but it remains the one place I’ve come back to more than any other. What’s always impressed me about it is its changeability. The place is reborn with every season, and I suppose that’s true of all abandoned buildings, but I’m always struck by it at the Farm Colony. In the height of summer, its jungle-like atmosphere lends it the look of a fallen Aztec empire, which is almost unrecognizable in the cooler months. It’s haunting in the fall when the fog rolls in, and desolate in the winter when ice and snow blanket the buildings inside and out. Through 40 years of abandonment, the Farm Colony is as ever-changing as the natural world that engulfs it, but it’s looking more and more definite that this historic district will be undergoing a final, permanent transformation in the days ahead.
Last month, the Landmarks Preservation Commission unanimously approved a proposal to bring 350 units of senior housing to the site, part of a large new development called “The Landmark Colony.” In the process, the institution is returning to its historic function as a home for the elderly after a four decade hiatus. (The place was essentially a geriatric hospital when it closed down in the 1970s, though it had been established in the mid 19th century as a refuge for the poor.) With five buildings saved and one kept as a stabilized ruin, the design will preserve much of the area’s architectural character. The remaining structures will be demolished and replaced with modern residential units, which is to be expected considering just how far gone some of these buildings are.
Several of the places I’ve photographed in the last few years have been set aside for renovation (The Domino Sugar Refinery, the Gowanus Batcave, and P.S. 186 to name a few.) The Smith Infirmary, the old Machpelah Cemetery office, and most troublingly, the Harlem Renaissance Ballroom have not been so lucky. It’s rare and encouraging when a structure is fortunate enough to get a second chance in this rapidly evolving city, but as positive as these changes are for their communities, a part of me still feels like something is lost. I know I’m not the only one who’ll miss the Farm Colony and its embattled ruins, which have become a popular spot for paintballers and Staten Island teenagers to pass the time.
Here’s a series of photos I’ve taken over the last year in sweltering heat, biting cold, snow, rain, and fog. Hopefully I make it back one last time before these ancient grounds are covered with fresh paint and brimming with active retirees year-round.