Renwick Smallpox Hospital

Design Question: How do we preserve the past while making room for the future?

Final prototype motion graphic for the history of Renwick Smallpox Hospital:

Concept Presentation:

“Learn from the past, prepare for the future, live in the present.” ~ Thomas S. Monson

Since the beginning of recorded history the ruins and artifacts of ancient civilizations have fascinated travelers and local inhabitants alike. These time-posts of our existence point us to contemplate on our past as a species and as individuals.

They are one of the few ways modern man can come into contact with the wonders of ancient technology and art. And they beg us to ask ourselves how have we evolved and, at times, regressed.

Some of the most popular travel designations in the world are remnants of cultures and peoples unknown to modern man.

Visiting the Past

But what where those structures before they where ancient? Before they were ruins? When they were first abandoned? What thoughts did these spaces conjure before the people themselves began to see them as part of a distant past? A past not easily recognizable in themselves.

The ruins of the Greeks inspired the Romans to build and expand their empire in its likeness. Striving to surpass the perfection they observed in the ruins they lived among. Later, the “Everyman” of the Dark Ages could gaze upward to the collapsing Roman aqueducts and know it was not long before him that those same magnificent structures once watered his fields. Perhaps his father and certainly his grandfather remembered when and how the water flowed. And even now travelers make special excursions to look at what remains of those same structures and wonder what life was like then. Questioning how these once vital constructions came to such a grim end.

New York City is recognized around the world as a modern metropolis. It’s skyline is dominated by skyscrapers of steel and glass. People visit this city for the new and the innovative; to shop and be entertained. In New York City, the old must constantly give way to the new. And yet, New York occasionally learns to be respectful of it’s past. More and more often waves of preservation wash over the city that saved many important spaces from decay (but only after the regrettable and disgraceful loss of so many beautiful and significant structures throughout the city). In Manhattan, the modern “Everyman” does not live with his distant past, which moves further and further away at an ever-quickening pace as we replace the old with the new.

There is one building you will not yet find in your traveler’s guide. A derelict structure where the past still speaks with it’s own voice.

Renwick Smallpox Hospital

Built: 1854

Opened: 1856

Closed: 1950

Location Age: 156 years

Abandonment: 60 years

Current Status: Abandoned / Designated National Historic Landmark

Location Genre: Sanitarium / Isolation Hospital

Located In: Manhattan, NY / Roosevelt Island

Designed by architect James Renwick Jr., whose more notable works include St. Patrick’s Cathedral, the 100 bed facility was part of a multitude of public institutions created care for New York City’s unfortunate and destitute.

Throughout it’s abandonment attempts where made to restore or preserve the structure. “ … however the building remains an uninhabitable ruin with all the romance which any great work of architecture retains as long as its general outlines can be discerned, evoking memories of its past.”

There is no roof, nor inner walls. There are barely any floors. Only the gray gneiss and brick foundation remain. Wooden timbers support the balconies from a 1975 preservation effort.

What was the impact of these structures when life was still evident in them and nature and man had only just begun their deconstruct?

Developing the Narrative

Building the Storyboards

I decided I needed a storyboard to clarify the narrative. It should be pretty self explanatory, but just in case:

the first panel starts with a shot of the bust NY street, people talking on their cell phones, a long shot of the street with the tram a small speck overhead. then a pan closer to really see it. Then a cut to the tram station signs showing Roosevelt Island. Next a view from the train – one showing the city skyline then a pan to show Roosevelt Island on the other. We’re then on the island I’ll show a few shots from the bus and just of the new shopping and buildings and views from the water, Manhattan across the way and views of the bridge, just to establish the modern island …

The last shot in the island sequence will end in a view of the new hospital, located just north of the Smallpox hospital ruins. The images then move illustrate the walk down to the more deserted end of the island to reveal the Smallpox hospital. We start with a wide angle shot of the front facade and then slowly pan zoom into one of the upper windows. As the camera pans in, a figure starts to come into focus. She is a shadowy image of a nurse from the late 1800′s moving across the opening. She is holding a medical tray. It then fades to a shadowy image of the old Smallpox Warning sign floating over the new chain link construction fence …2


That will dissolve and then resolve again to show the sign for the Nurse’s Dorm and the maternity college. The camera will then focus “through” the sign and past the fence onto a group of young nurses posed for a “school” picture. Some will be giggling, talking and looking around until their attention shifts to you as though you were the photographer and a flash clear the screen … slowly color begins to bleed into the image and resolves into the future Roosevelt Park, with the restored hospital looking beautiful in the sunlight and birds singing …3

Some mock ups of the compositing …

This image is way too creepy for what I had in mind. In the final image the ladies will all be smiling like the girl in the front row far left. And the nun just doesn’t work, it was a public institution and I think that might be a bit too much.


I like the drawn composites better. I have more control and it gives me a reason to draw; I can add and subtract whatever I can think of, not just what I can find.


Primary Research and Peliminary Images

IMG_2366I decided to head out to Roosevelt Island and get some primary research done and to get the video and island stills done early. Good thing I did.

I enlisted some help to start. I asked Christ to go with me as an additional set of eye’s and he had a camera on loan from Louis. Chris got some great shots of the subway and around the island. I took a ton of video (which I hope proves useful).

The first thing I learned was that the Tram is out of service until August. No where in their official site did they mention this!!

Needless to say I was disappointed, but I thought that at least it wasn’t a complete rewrite. And once I got down into the station to Roosevelt Island I was really happy to see that the architecture of the subway station was pretty cool too. There are several station around Manhattan with that same style and I always appreciated it. But the scale seems much larger at the Roosevelt stations.



Roosevelt Island was fantastic. It’s a feels like a little oasis between Manhattan and Queens. I live in Astoria, Queens and I pass by, in, and around this island almost every day. I know now I’m going back more often.
…. but then I got to the Southern tip and bam! It’s all walled off. It seems they’re beginning construction on the park this summer and got an early start by walling of the entire southern tip. I can think of several reasons they would do this, but again – no mention on any site for Roosevelt Island, the City or the Park itself!! As a matter of fact most site specifically state that is open to the public. Very frustration to say the least.

This is the only view through the sheet-metal fence. The big building you see in the picture is ”The Strecker Laboratory, in the 1890s the premier facility for bacteriological research, was constructed in a Romanesque revival style by architects Frederick Withers and Walter Dickson. In 2000, the Laboratory was renovated and restored; in 2004 it still stands all alone in an empty lot south of the Smallpox Hospital, awaiting visitors.” The Smallpox hospital can barely be made out to the right and behind the Strecker Lab and the blue truck.


I wish now I had gotten a picture of the fence itself, but I think I was just overwhelmed with the thought of going back to the drawing board I didn’t consider it at the time. I’ll have to remember to keep my cool a little better when things don’t work out way it’s first planed.

So now I am looking at a total rewrite. I have some ideas of my own, but I’m hoping to get some good feedback and suggestions for the class on how I could proceed.


The Final Iteration

or “As far as I can take it this time.”

So I’ve rewritten the narrative to incorporate the new limitations and to include the future of the structure and what it will be for those who will visit. Not having access to the structure itself leaves me to drawing what I can to animate the narrative.

I decided to us a voiceover to guild us through the history and let the visuals be absorbed in suport of the narrative. I wrote a simple script highlighting the key points in the history of the Smallpox Hospital and better half, Christopher Abell did the voice over and recording with me. He has a much richer voice then I do and it fit perfectly with the subject of the piece.


I organized the transitions according to the narration, using text to create the flow in the animation between the different stages of the hospital. In my research I found an old Smallpox Hospital opening announcement, which I really liked the look of (the grid of this is really great).

I used this as a template to create a similar sign for the Renwick Smallpox Hospital. It was interesting to disassemble this peice and realize that a lot of the look I that I appreciate in this “poster” is the spacing and clustering of the individual words. In reproducing this I had to “set” each word (sometimes a group of words) in the line. The uniform spacing of the computer destroys this feel and the rhythm it generates.(using the information from the Smallpox hospital.


I did some research and gave a lot of thought to the font styles and really wanted the different type fit the change in the history of the building. These are the fonts I chose for the transitions:

Oldnewspaper Type – 1850’s

CrappyGothic – 1850’s

Chelsea – 1900’s

Yoxall – 1950’s

TRASHED – 1975

Helvetica Neue – 2009

Animation Stills


Final thoughts:

I had a lot of problems with importing the layers into After Effects. And I had to finally create the animation in Photoshop instead, which meant I presented without the audio.  The timing was also thrown off in the conversion to photoshop; what was once a smooth flowing animation turned into a very choppy studdering work.

It does have a kind of stop-motion feel to it, but not what I had intended.  What I presented was only a pale comparison to what my original final intent was.   Below is what was presented, a bit different then what I was able to work out after the project was due. I kept working on it and the result is the motion graphic you see at the beginning of this post. I can think of a million things to improve it, but for a first try, it’s not too bad.