It was my first trip to this evocative place where as many as 40% of Americans can trace their initial experience in this country. From the Save Ellis Island website, here are the basic facts:
The Ellis Island Immigration Station opened on Ellis Island in January of 1892. It served as the primary immigration center for the United States from 1892 until 1954 when it was closed. Facilities were built to house and feed immigrants while they waited for their identification papers to be processed. A state-of-the-art hospital complex treated and cured most sick immigrants in order for them to be permitted entry into the country. More than 12 million immigrants passed through Ellis Island between 1892 and 1954, reaching a peak of 1.25 million in 1907. It has been estimated that 40% of Americans today can trace at least one ancestor’s entry into the United States through Ellis Island.
It is the early twentieth-century state-of-the-art hospital complex, located on the south side of the island, that was the focus of my visit. My employer, the National Trust for Historic Preservation, has been working with government agencies such as the National Park Service and private organizations for two decades to save this special place. (I encourage you to visit the link and get an update on the preservation of Ellis Island.) Recently we’ve been helping the nonprofit organization Save Ellis Island (SEI) that’s focused its work on the preservation of the hospital buildings. SEI works closely with the Park Service and the State of New Jersey (which owns most of the island) in all its work.
I took along my camera to meetings with the SEI staff. The buildings on the south side have been stabilized but – as you can see – are still in need of restoration. The ghosts and stories are everywhere. My pictures, taken on a dull, rainy day, don’t convey the power of this place, but I hope you’ll get a sense of why all of Ellis Island is worth saving. It is only when you can see the hospital complex that you understand the full range of the immigration station.
As we say at the National Trust: This Place Matters!
We’ll begin with the view one sees coming in on the ferry of the Main Station, where immigrants were processed.
The main station was beautifully restored by the Park Service in one of its largest preservation projects ever. Here’s the interior hall of the second floor.
The restored space is beautiful, but it is when one heads over to the hospital wing – which isn’t currently open to the public – that you begin to understand the complexity of this place and the multitude of emotions that must have overtaken immigrants to a new country who were taken here for treatment. These are stories that need to be told and places that need to be seen by the public as well. This is a shot of the infamous corridor that linked the various wards.
As a state-of-the-art facility, the wards featured extensive light and ventilation. Here’s a typical ward off the corridor. The beds would have been placed between the windows, which have been closed as part of the stabilization project.
The exteriors on the South Side continue to show deterioration. Here are several shots that point to the craftsmanship of the work and the need for restoration.
And this final shot, which to my mind is the most poignant. This is a view from within the infectious disease ward. The Statue of Liberty is in sight, but to these patients – most of whom never made it out of the hospital – it might as well have been a million miles away.
Many thanks to Darcy Hartman of Save Ellis Island for the tour, the wonderful information, but most importantly for the work that she and her colleagues do every day to save this place that says so much about America. We truly are a nation of immigrants.
More to come…