North Brother Island: The Last Unknown Place in New York City

Christopher Payne was awarded a NYSCA Architecture + Design independent project grant in 2013. This report on his work is part of an ongoing feature on Architectural League-sponsored NYSCA grantees.

West side of North Brother Island from the Bronx | Click to enlarge. All photos by Christopher Payne, all rights reserved.

North Brother Island: The Last Unknown Place in New York City
by Christopher Payne

North Brother Island is among the most unexpected of places: an uninhabited island of ruins in New York City that hardly anyone knows; a secret existing in plain sight. It is both part of the city and a world apart from it. Its 20 acres sit low in the East River, just north of Hell Gate, with 25 or so buildings in various states of decay. As there is no public access, it’s most easily seen as you lift off the tarmac at LaGuardia or as you drive up the New England freeway through the Bronx.

North Brother Island came into prominence in the late 19th century, when public health issues of an exploding population regularly made headlines. Like other islands in the harbor, it was perfectly suited as a buffer against contagions, and from the 1870s through the 1930s it was used primarily as a quarantine hospital (the infamous Typhoid Mary was confined there). After WWII it provided a temporary home for veterans, and from the 1950s it was used as a juvenile drug treatment center until its closure in 1963. Over the years, new uses have been proposed for the island, but by and large it has been forgotten. Thanks to a threatened species of shorebird, the black-crowned night heron, North Brother has been designated as conservation land, to protect nesting grounds for the herons, which have unwittingly helped to preserve the island’s forgotten fragments of New York’s history.

Christopher Payne, all rights reserved

Maintenance Building workshop

Since 2006, with permission from the New York City Department of Parks & Recreation, I have been one of a few photographers allowed on the island, and my photographs comprise a comprehensive record of the buildings and its evolving landscape over many seasons. Devoid of human habitation for over half a century, the buildings, streets, and facilities are in ruins, reclaimed by lush vegetation. My photographs of the island, all of which were taken with a large format view camera, convey the beauty and significance of this wild landscape that brims with intrigue and paradox.

A NYSCA grant, sponsored by The Architectural League, supported the production of my latest book, North Brother Island: The Last Unknown Place in New York City. The fascinating history of this unique place touches upon public health policy, urban planning, historic preservation, and environmental conservation. By bringing the island to public consciousness, I hope to give renewed civic presence to a long-inaccessible part of the city.

 In 2012, the League’s Urban Omnibus interviewed Christopher Payne about his work, the intersections between his architectural background and artistic practice, and the role photography can play in reminding us of our disappearing histories. In that interview, Payne discussed his photography of North Brother Island. What follows is an excerpt from that conversation:

Payne: There’s a book called The World Without Us by Alan Weisman that imagines what would happen to the planet if humans disappeared. He dedicates a chapter to New York City that might as well be captions for these photos. The series isn’t just about the abandoned buildings, it is about the universal story of man’s attempts to live in and alter the natural world, and how nature always reasserts herself in the end.

Architects are taught to think about how buildings will age, but we never think how they will fall apart. People assume it takes centuries. But on North Brother Island, that jump from human habitation to unrecognizable ruin is just a few decades.

When you see historic photographs of North Brother, you see this huge, open, well-maintained campus. This was not just a cluster of buildings in a wooded landscape. But we don’t think about the parts we can’t see, buried just beneath our feet—the streets, the fire hydrants, the lampposts. And this is an island that used to be very much connected to the city. There were ferries running back and forth, for people who worked at the hospital, or for the families that lived there after WWII. We’re looking at things that had so much meaning just fifty years ago, and now, even in a city as big as this, no one remembers them except maybe one or two people who actually went to school there, who were on the island when it was an active community. … All it takes is one generation for that kind of public knowledge to be lost. We assume history will be remembered, but that’s not always the case. I think photographers are acutely aware of that.

Christopher Payne, all rights reserved

Coal house from the morgue roof

Christopher Payne, all rights reserved

Tuberculosis Pavilion, winter

Christopher Payne, all rights reserved

Tuberculosis Pavilion, summer

Christopher Payne, all rights reserved

Fire hydrant

Christopher Payne, all rights reserved

Tennis courts

Christopher Payne, all rights reserved

View looking down street with Nurse’s Home on the right

Christopher Payne, all rights reserved

St. John-by-the-Sea Church, front

Christopher Payne, all rights reserved

Church, side

Christopher Payne, all rights reserved

Bathroom, Staff House

Christopher Payne, all rights reserved

Door in dormitory ward, Tuberculosis Pavilion

Christopher Payne, all rights reserved

Classroom, Service Building

Christopher Payne, all rights reserved

Library books, Male Dormitory

Christopher Payne, all rights reserved

View of Manhattan at dusk, high tide

All photographs by Christopher Payne. All rights reserved.

Christopher Payne specializes in the documentation of America’s vanishing architecture and industrial landscape. Trained as an architect, he is fascinated by how things are purposefully designed and constructed, and how they work. His first book, New York’s Forgotten Substations: The Power Behind the Subway, offered dramatic, rare views of the behemoth machines that are hidden behind modest facades in New York City. His second book, Asylum: Inside the Closed World of State Mental Hospitals, which includes an essay by the renowned neurologist Oliver Sacks, was the result of a seven-year survey of America’s vast and largely shuttered state mental institutions.

Payne’s forthcoming book, North Brother Island: The Last Unknown Place in New York City, explores an uninhabited island of ruins in the East River. Payne’s photographs invoke the former grandeur of the site over different seasons, capturing hints of buried streets and infrastructure now reclaimed by nature, while also offering a unique glimpse into a city’s future without people.

Payne’s recent work, including a series in progress on the American textile industry, has veered away from the documentation of the obsolete towards a celebration of craftsmanship and small-scale manufacturing that are persevering in the face of global competition and evolutions in industrial processes. Nearing completion is One Steinway Place, a tour through the famous Steinway & Sons piano factory in Astoria, Queens. Here a team of skilled workers creates exquisite instruments considered to be some of the finest in the world. Payne captures moments of the choreographies of production and assembly, and inspects the parts and pieces of the instruments that will never be visible outside of the factory, telling a story of intricacy, precision, and care he fears is becoming all too rare in the American workplace. For more information about his work, visit chrispaynephoto.com.