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The Fall of the Samuel R. Smith Infirmary





 
 

The Fall of the Samuel R. Smith Infirmary 

Established by the Richmond County Medical Society in 1861, the Samuel R. Smith Infirmary was the first private hospital built for Staten Island and its residents. In its early years, the Infirmary operated out of a sequence of buildings near the present-day location of the Ferry Terminal. It found a permanent home in 1887, when the Society purchased 6 grassy acres on a hilltop off Castleton Avenue.

The architect, Alfred E. Barlow, gifted the hospital with a strange and vaguely medieval form, cast in red brick. This seemed a suiting design choice, for what better than a castle to crown an imposing hilltop? A likely inspiration for the unusual design is the then-modern New York Cancer Hospital, built in 1885. It was a common belief at the time that rooms without corners prevented the accumulation of germs and helped mitigate the spread of illness, hence the hospital had many cylindrical chambers. At its opening ceremony, the Infirmary was hailed as the "pride of the island”, and it soon went to work serving those in need. Early in its life the hospital hosted the wounded of the Spanish-American War, when horse-drawn ambulances carried them to its doors in 1898, from the warships Rio Grande, Leona, and Concho in the harbor. In 1916, the Infirmary was rechristened the Staten Island Hospital. It continued to serve as the primary medical center for the borough until the end of 1979, when it was replaced by a modern, infinitely more ordinary structure on Seaview Avenue in Ocean Breeze.

While gaining entry to the hospital was neither easy nor enjoyable, once inside our company was welcomed with beautiful displays of light, dancing in beams filtering through the branches and decaying walls. It was as if the place was celebrating the presence of people within its walls after an interminable loneliness. Though standing only a few dozen feet in any direction from a roadway or sidewalk, the old hospital had come to be so overgrown with underbrush, trees, and ivy that it all but disappeared from the world outside its fenced hilltop, washed over and dissolved by a newly sprouted urban forest. Perhaps it was at least partially because of the greenery which had come to encompass the old infirmary that it not only faded away from people's daily lives, but from their memories as well.

Since its closure, the old hospital sat unused and unmaintained. Slowly this intriguing piece of architecture, and notable piece of Staten Island history was allowed to rot away right under the noses of thousands of people, many of whom were born within its walls. By the time anyone had come to realize what they and the community as a whole were losing to neglect, it was already lost. What was once heralded as a great accomplishment had come to be referred to as nothing more than an eyesore. Some private groups did organize in an attempt to save the hospital from demolition, and though their intentions were well placed, their actions proved to be a case of too little too late. The castle had peacefully passed away long ago, while slumbering beyond leafy walls of green.

All that remained was a decaying husk, one that was far beyond any hope of salvation through reuse, no matter how noble the idea. The forest was cleared, and these castle walls finally fell to the plow March 5th, 2012.





PPeople opposing the demolition plans hung signs on the old fencing that ran the hospital grounds.


Though empty inside, the infirmary housed a beautiful central staircase.




The old main entry.









 Round rooms were commonplace in old hospitals, as it was widely believed that sickness bred in corners.
 




The rafters of the uppermost floor brought to mind the ribs of a giant whale.





The demo crew made fast work of the frail old castle.



A pulled-back view of the former hospital grounds, and the pile of rubble which was the infirmary.


The castle, weeks before demolition.


The castle as it appeared several years prior, in summer bloom.

 
 






The modern addition that was eventually added to the hospital dwarfed the original castle building.





This is actually the last film we ever created using our old recording equipment. When watching, you may notice that it has a different "feel" to it than our current-day films, this is because the style of our cinematography has evolved over time.