The architecture and history of the Essex County Isolation Hospital in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic

Essex County Isolation Hospital in Belleville NJ


This is a crazy and scary time in the world with the outbreak and spread of the coronavirus pandemic. First and foremost, let’s give a link to the CDC website where one can get evolving information on COVID-19 as it becomes available from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

I was watching the news today, and saw a press conference by New York Governor Andrew Cuomo, and one of his points was the concern about maximizing existing hospital capacity as well as utilizing the Federal Government to find and retrofit, or build new medical spaces to meet the eventual needs of coronavirus patients.

All of this brought to mind the fact that here in New Jersey, in Belleville, near Newark, is an imposing building which was part of an extensive compound originally built in 1905, which once functioned as the “Essex County Isolation Hospital.” Considering the current events, I was curious to learn more about this building.

The Essex County Isolation Hospital in Belleville, NJ

I’ve been aware of this building for a long time, and years ago I used to joke with my kids when they were younger that it was an “insane asylum” (making comparisons to the Arkham Asylum in one of their favorite Batman video games). I didn’t know at the time that it had a history as an isolation hospital, I was just goofing around with my kids because it looked ominous on its remote and removed hilltop location, especially at night, since it was abandoned at the time. Compare my photograph below taken today with this view of the imaginary Arkham Asylum.

Essex County Isolation Hospital in Belleville NJ

At any rate, enough with the Batman comparisons … let’s get into a little factual history of the actual hospital. As I mentioned before, it was originally built in the early 1900s in order to handle local cases of infectious diseases. There was already a sanitorium for tuberculosis out in the countryside (50 miles west, in Glen Gardner, NJ), but local health officials wanted an isolation hospital to be built near the city of Newark. Over the years it housed a range of residents, including isolation patients with polio, orphans and disabled children, and the elderly, before becoming a cancer research facility in 1996, which operated for 15 years before closing in 2011. It served as a movie location for scenes from the 2001 movie “A Beautiful Mind,” and you can see the front exterior for a split second – at exactly the one minute mark – in the official movie trailer here.

To the best of my knowledge, the building has been abandoned since 2011. Although there is some limited evidence of activity these days around the building, what’s interesting – or perhaps mysterious – is that I can’t find any current information on what is happening there now. There were reports of the building being sold to developers for mixed retail and residential use back in 2015, and I saw another report that said to “expect occupants by 2017,” but over the past year and a half, there hasn’t been much happening at all. If you have any information about the history or current status of this building and location, please share in the comments section after the additional architectural photos below.

The former Garden State Cancer Center and isolation hospital in Belleville NJ

If you look closely, the sign in the picture above near the Belleville Avenue entrance once read “Garden State Cancer Center,” but was whitewashed. The sign in the previous picture above which notes the Essex County Isolation Hospital is located at a separate entrance on Franklin Avenue.

architectural details of the former Essex County Isolation Hospital in Belleville
architectural details of the former Essex County Isolation Hospital in Belleville, NJ

Here’s a link to a vintage postcard of the building circa 1930-1945.

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3 thoughts on “The architecture and history of the Essex County Isolation Hospital in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic

  1. Just today, I decided to search this building online – though I’ve wondered for the last decade at least. I was searching for jobs and wondering if this building had been updated into a potential new hospital. Funny I came across your post!

  2. Have you found any info? I don’t know but constantly searching everyday, they are working there even during covid and new windows are all ready to go. Nothing makes sense as to why there is limited information available.

  3. Funny you should mention the Batman “Arkham Asylum” reference in your post, because right now, in March 2023, the Joker movie sequel is actually filming at this old Soho hospital in Belleville, NJ, as the Arkham Asylum!

    This building (and the old buildings that used to be behind it – which are now replaced with condos) not only accommodated the elderly, cancer patients, and orphans, but was also the Essex County Children’s Shelter back in the 1970s. I know from personal experience because during my parents’ horrible divorce a social worker placed me there for 3 weeks back in 1974 when I was only 8 yrs old.

    The children’s shelter was partially run from the left wing of the main hospital, as well as in some buildings in the back. We ate all our meals at the hospital cafeteria, along with whatever elderly patients inhabited the building at that time.

    Also, yes its true– there is an underground tunnel that goes from the hospital to the old outer buildings that are no longer there. On rainy days our social worker would take us through this tunnel to get to the cafeteria from the playground. The tunnel had many nuclear shelter signs and was in a state of disrepair even when I was there and gave me nightmares for many years.

    Overall the inside of the hospital was old and creepy and I can understand why they shut it down & sold it to a developer (who hasn’t done anything with it since). Who’d want to live in this creepy place? Just the Joker I guess.

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