The Tuberculosis Pavilion (Photograph by Christopher Payne).
by Rachel Nuwer
In the heart of New York City lies an abandoned island. Although it is clearly visible to commuters on the Bronx’s I-278 or passengers flying into La Guardia airport, few people are even aware of its existence.
If anything, they have only heard that the infamous Typhoid Mary spent her final years confined to a mysterious island, situated somewhere within view of the city skyline. But even that sometimes seems the stuff of rumor.
Until 1885, the 20-acre spot of land—called North Brother Island—was uninhabited, just as it is today.
That year saw the construction of the Riverside Hospital, a facility designed to quarantine smallpox patients.
Workers and patients traveled there by ferry from 138th Street in the Bronx (for many of the latter, it was a one-way trip), and the facility eventually expanded to serve as a quarantine center for people suffering from a variety of communicable diseases.
By the 1930s, however, other hospitals had sprouted up in New York, and public health advances lessened the need to quarantine large numbers of individuals.
In the 1940s, North Brother Island was transformed into a housing center for war veterans and their families. But by 1951, most of them—fed up with the need to take a ferry to and from home—had chosen to live elsewhere.
For the last decade of its brief period of human habitation, the island became a drug rehabilitation center for heroin addicts.
Mere decades ago, North Brother Island was a well-manicured urban development like any other. Judging from aerial photos taken in the 1950s, the wildest things there were a few shade trees.
In those years, North Brother Island was covered by ordinary roads, lawns and buildings, including the towering Tuberculosis Pavilion built in the Art Modern style.