Sunday, April 13, 2008

Staten Island Hospital

I, and most of my friends growing up, were born at the original Staten Island Hospital on Castleton Avenue at the head of Cebra Avenue. For most of my childhood it stood there, staff and patients flowing in and out, using the florists and gift stores that graced the nearby intersection of Cebra and Victory Boulevard. When Jim D. hit my five year old forehead with a rock it's where I was brought kicking and screaming to get stitches. Later I went to study for my dentistry merit badge in the offices in the back of the complex.

I understand the need to build a big, modern facility as the Island grew but I was disappointed when Staten Island Hospital moved to Seaview Avenue in Ocean Breeze. No one knew what was going to happen to the complex of buildings on Castleton Avenue but they would be empty for at least a little while. Of course my friends and I decided at once to figure out how to get inside them and explore.

When the old hospital first closed there was a guard house built at the front door, so Bruce N., Jesse B., and I simply went around back. We found a hole in the fence by the driveway on the complex's side on Webster Avenue. We looked for open windows and after half and hour or so of skulking around we found one. We had to climb up to get to it and then drop down several feet once inside the building. The three of us found ourselves in a small, non-descript office that had been stripped of all furniture. A few scattered papers lay on the floor but nothing indicated what it had once been.

We decided to carefully make our way into the rest of the hospital. Fortunately we were being very cautious and quiet. As we entered the hallway we heard the very distinctive sound of dog's claws on the linoleum. Fear exploded in us at once and we made ran back into the room. Jesse was little (he was ten at the time) so we boosted him up and out. Then Bruce climbed up and then he helped me up. We ran as fast as we could out the driveway and caught our breaths. When we walked back around onto Castleton Avenue we looked at the guard house and realized there was some sort of cage around the front door. Guard dogs were being allowed to patrol the building at will and we'd almost been caught.

That incident kept us away from the building for several months. The next time we went back was over Easter break. This time Jim D. came with us. We decided not to go into the buildings but just explore around the back. Behind the main buildings on Castleton Avenue were a series of auxiliary buildings and clinics. We found the generators in fine working condition along with piles of packages of sutures and needles. They were just lying on the ground and we helped ourselves to them. I don't know why and they served no purpose except, perhaps, as trophies of our expedition.

After that decided to make a climb up the fire escape that ran up the back of the Samuel R. Smith Infirmary, the heart of the old buildings on Castleton. We made our way up the stairs trying to keep as quiet as possible. It didn't make us invisible. Half way up to the third floor we heard an amplified voice yelling at us to "Get down from there!" We obliged and were down and out the hole in the fence in nothing flat. Again we stayed away for months.

We did keep an eye on the place, looking for any changes. Eventually we noticed that the dog cage was gone. We went around back again but the window was sealed. We came back a few hours later with a homemade grappling hook hoping to get up on the back of a low roofed part of the newer hospital building. It didn't work and we didn't get in.


Again we kept our eyes on the place and soon there weren't anymore guards. The buildings, a little more than a year after closing, had simply been abandoned. It was the time for a full on expedition. On Columbus Day 1980 we took the chance and snuck into the old Staten Island Hospital.

The party consisted of me, Jim D., Jesse B. and Alex R., the same group that would go into the Silver Lake Reservoir some months later. We had flashlights, ropes, pocket knives and matches. I can't imagine what anyone seeing us walk over Cebra Avenue to Castleton would have thought of us but no one so much as glanced at us.

We started by going around back like in all our other efforts. We made sure no cars were on Webster and went through the fence hole. We were hoping we could find an open door or at least a window we could break without being seen. We found a door pretty quickly and were soon in the building. We decided to just wander around and eventually make our way to the roof of the new building. Alex. R.'s would be our guide as he knew his way around the place. His father was a medical person and had worked in the place for years before it closed.

We wandered around the first floor for some time just seeing what was to be seen. It was obvious that anything left behind by the hospital move had since been stolen if it had any value. Copper wire and light fixtures had been ripped out and removed. Door knobs, switch panels and sink fixtures were all gone. That hadn't been the case a few months earlier. It also meant that people other than us had been watching for changes in the security arrangements. It meant we had to be cautious.

Alex decided to take us into the older buildings. He said there was an underground passage in the basement that would be cool to use. We went down stairs, flashlights casting thin illumination into the tunnel's utter blackness, and started walking. When Alex started telling us that the tunnel was for moving bodies around I admit I just wanted to get out back into the light. A few minutes later we were.

The old buildings were in the same shape as the new one. They'd been stripped bare of anything that could be sold or reused. It was a little sad and astonishing to realize. I had heard about the Bronx burning and being abandoned a few years earlier but that was something in the news. Besides, the Bronx were a faraway place that meant nothing to me other than the zoo. How had this happened? It was no small undertaking to clear out the buildings like they'd been, so where had the police been? Didn't the Staten Island Hospital care?

We decided it was time to head to the roof. We went back to the new building (not through the tunnel) and found a staircase. We made our way upward, occasionally getting out and exploring a few rooms before continuing our climb. We were on one of the upper floors when we saw the light.

We'd come out onto the floor from the stairs and found ourselves in fairly dark surroundings. Some of the floors were well lit because the doors to the rooms were open. That wasn't the case on this floor so we brought out our flashlights. We were looking around when Jim said "Stop." He thought heard something from the end of the hall we were in and wanted to listen. Suddenly we saw the clear light of cigarette light flame. We didn't hear anything or see anything else. The four of us froze for a second or two and then ran all the way down the stairs and out the driveway. It was the last time we went into the hospital.

We speculated about what it was. In the end we decided it was one of what were probably lots of bums living in the buildings. It was no longer safe and we would never go back.

Over the years the buildings have fallen into deeper and deeper decay. There was plan in the mid-eighties to turn them into condos but that was a money laundering scheme that left dozens of tenants ripped off and in debt. Over the years a few con men set themselves as the rightful owners and let people rent the apartments from them but they were eventually evicted by the city and the lower floors of the buildings sealed with cement.

Later the back buildings were crushed by snow on their rotting roofs and the city pulled them down. Their outlines remain in the aerial shots on Google Earth. Now the large old buildings, the Samuel R. Smith Infirmary and the Nursing Building are rotting away and falling down. The city refused to landmark them in 1983, said though they'd like to in 1987 they couldn't, and finally has just left them to melt into the ground.

Stolen from someone's flickr page (above)

It's in the trees - it's coming (above)

The cheesy castle roof was added during the condo scheme (above)


Richard Wonder said...

Great story. I live nearby but never went in. I did explore the Gypsum plant on Richmond Terrace, though...

The Wasp said...

Of which I am very jealous