Part of the Ellis Island National Monument, this mostly unused complex of buildings near the restored Immigration Museum once comprised the largest U.S. Public Health Service institution in the country. Today, few Americans realize that portions of Ellis Island are unrestored and off limits to visitors. The National Park Service stabilized the hospital structures here a decade ago, but millions of dollars still must be raised to rehabilitate the interiors of these historic buildings.
Ellis Island was once known as an “Island of Hope” for immigrants who launched new lives in America, but has also been called the “Island of Tears” by newcomers who were turned back to their homelands or separated from their families at the processing center. The historic hospitals, quarantine wards, and support buildings on the south side of the island retain their integrity and haunting beauty. Preservation experts and historians feel strongly that they must be protected and opened to the public.
- Raise awareness about the work left to be done on the south side of Ellis Island, including the potential for rehabilitation and reuse of the hospital buildings.
- Secure adequate funding for the project and support redevelopment and public visitation.
Ways To Help
Written by Roberta Lane, Senior Field Officer and Attorney
In April, National Trust staff gained access to Ellis Island for the first time since Hurricane Sandy swept over the complex in October 2012. We were able to visit the vacant hospital buildings on the south side of Ellis Island and to see firsthand the impact of this devastating storm. We saw waterlines that were chest-high, debris covering the historic floors, and broken doors and windows. We had productive and positive discussions with our partners at the National Park Service, Save Ellis Island, and the National Parks Conservation Association while on the visit, but it was sobering to see what the storm did to this National Treasure.
Hurricane Sandy damaged Ellis Island so extensively that it may not be reopened to visitors for years. The Island’s infrastructure – electric, heating, cooling, sewer, docks, walkways, etc. – was severely damaged or entirely destroyed. The hospital buildings were battered by wind and water, and flooded at the lower stories. The boards that covered their windows were torn away, and silt and debris filled the rooms. Within weeks, the National Park Service replaced some of the lost protective boarding and cleaned up the landscape. The storm has proven to be a serious setback for preservation of the hospital buildings both because of the physical damage and, more importantly, because it has diverted limited NPS resources and attention away from the need to rehabilitate and reuse the hospital buildings, toward the need to reopen basic visitor services on the Island.
Our role as a voice for preservation of the hospital buildings is more important than ever. We are working to keep officials and others focused on the need to preserve Ellis Island’s south side, while acknowledging the need to restore Ellis Island’s primary visitor experience. We are examining the hospital buildings’ vulnerability to future storm damage, and how those considerations could affect redevelopment options. And we are continuing to build a coalition equipped to advance toward viable reuse of the structures. The structures took some damage from the storm, but their compelling stories and significance are intact, and continue to drive our determination to save them.
Written by National Trust for Historic Preservation
This update was originally posted on the Preservationnation.org blog
Nearly two months after Hurricane Sandy made landfall in the mid-Atlantic states, we wanted to share an update on affected sites in the New York metro area and the National Trust's efforts to support recovery.
On December 13, Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar and Director of the National Park Service Jonathan Jarvis, along with a small group of journalists and other stakeholders, toured damaged places in the New York City region. Of the 70 national parks and dozens of wildlife refuges that sustained damage from the storm, the 15 parks located in and around NYC were among the hardest hit, including Liberty Island and Ellis Island. (Ellis Island is one of our National Treasures, a portfolio of endangered places the National Trust is working to protect.)
The National Trust's representative on the tour, Alicia Leuba, reports that the impacts are wide-ranging: Not only have the National Parks of New York Harbor suffered damage to their natural and built environments, but they're experiencing an economic setback at tourist sites such as Gateway, Fire Island, and the Statue of Liberty, which contributed more than half a billion dollars to the local economy last year and support nearly 4,400 jobs.
Both Ellis Island and the Statue of Liberty are now closed indefinitely. Salazar and Jarvis have requested $59 million in emergency supplemental funding to help repair and reopen the islands as quickly as possible.
â€œOur commitment to Ellis Island began when we named its south-side buildings a National Treasure earlier this year, and it has only deepened in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy,â€ says Stephanie K. Meeks, president of the National Trust, noting that the organization is fully supporting the National Park Service's request for emergency federal funding and has also offered the volunteer service of professional engineers, architects, and preservationists who can help conduct assessments of damaged historic resources, if needed. â€œWe plan to bring even more resources to the Hurricane Sandy relief effort in 2013 and anchor the Trust's long-term commitment to saving and restoring the region's irreplaceable cultural heritage.â€
Written by Roberta Lane, Senior Field Officer and Attorney
One month after Hurricane Sandy barreled into the East Coast, repair and restoration continues apace at homes, religious structures, downtowns, parks, historic sites, and beyond. In particular, the damage at Ellis Island provides a snapshot of one kind of post-Sandy reality.
Our National Treasure and America’s 11 Most Endangered Places listings for Ellis Island focused on the 30 vacant buildings on the island to highlight their plight. These buildings have stood the test of time while they wait for a reuse. We were already concerned about their condition, though, so early reports that the stormwaters surged right over the island distressed us.
Indeed, Hurricane Sandy flooded through Ellis Island with a vengeance. Today, the National Park Service is working heroically, in awful conditions, to assess and repair the damage, and we are working with them and Save Ellis Island to try to ensure a brighter future for the south side of the island, a place that has endured so much.
Since the storm, we’ve met with the National Park Service and Save Ellis Island to learn about the current conditions and coordinate our assistance. Of note:
- One vacant building -- the Ferry Building -- was restored a few years ago by the National Park Service and Save Ellis Island. The storm blew out windows and doors at the Ferry Building and inundated the exhibits and interiors inside.
- At the vacant US Public Health Service buildings, boarding meant to protect windows was blown out and water got into the lower areas.
- The grand Main Building had basement flooding, destroying the island’s mechanical systems and most other parts of its infrastructure.
- The Immigration Hall and most exhibits at the Main Building were unaffected.
The National Park Service is finishing its assessments and stabilization of the many units of the National Parks of New York Harbor that were damaged in the storm. We plan to work with our partners to connect preservation professionals from the field with the Park Service’s experts, as needed. And we are building a broad coalition of agencies and organizations to help support the work ahead.
Ellis Island stands for a complex and wonderful American ideal: that we should garner the benefits of major change through immigration, while always ensuring our nation’s fundamental stability and constancy. This concept of well-managed change is also, of course, a value at the heart of historic preservation -- one we hope to demonstrate at this important site.
(All images are pre-storm).
Written by Alicia Leuba, Project Manager
I’m Alicia Leuba, and I’m leading the National Trust’s work to revitalize the historic buildings on the south side of Ellis Island. In my 17 years with the National Trust, I have had the privilege to take part in saving all types of special places, but the south side of Ellis Island represents stories that I find particularly compelling. Built as the immigration station’s hospitals, quarantine, and mental health wards, this campus was vital to the United States’ efforts to control disease and to treat newcomers with humanity and dignity.
Since immigration processing ended at Ellis Island, few people have had the fortune to visit this unrestored part of the island. For me, it is extremely powerful to stand in these haunting buildings and to imagine how it must have felt for an immigrant to end their long sea journey to the United States, only to be separated from his or her family, quarantined, treated, and maybe denied entry. In contrast, for a pregnant woman so relieved to leave the boat, the state-of-the-art treatment provided here would have meant the world. In either case, this dimension of the immigrant experience is one I know Americans would really connect with if given a chance to visit.
Our goal is to facilitate the rehabilitation and reuse of the large collection of buildings on the south side. Ultimately, we want more people to be able to access this area, in some manner, and to learn about this dimension of the Ellis Island story. The National Park Service, Save Ellis Island, and other preservationists, historians, and supporters have worked hard, over many years, to curb deterioration of the buildings and to raise awareness of these resources and their stories. They have rehabilitated several important buildings, including the Great Hall, through which millions of visitors pass each year. Today, all agree that we have to find a way to rehabilitate the many remaining buildings.
We are at a very early point in our renewed efforts at Ellis Island. We are researching ways to address some of the constraints that have slowed progress toward rehabilitation. We are also actively exploring similar sites across the country that have been successfully reused to find solutions that could work for these buildings. Our public policy department is engaged in the effort to find ways we can assist the National Park Service, which is eager to continue their progress toward preservation. Down the road, we’ll help in ongoing efforts to proactively plan and pursue a viable use that we hope can spark the south side’s rehabilitation.
Seymour Brown on April 15, 2014
I played bugle in 1975 for the 1st official flag raising when they reopened the island. I was stationed on Governers Island in training, and was in the 3rd Coast Guard District band. When we played the National Anthem, the ceiling crumbled and fell on some of the audience. The place was haunting.
Phil on October 24, 2012
The National Parks Service took over Ellis Island in 1965. When I first visited in 1974, the roof were intact - in fact, there were very few broken windows on the island. But after years of neglect by the NPS, seedlings took root and water came in and damaged all of the buildings. The historic ferry Ellis Island sat at the dock for years before sinking under the NPS watch and was dredged a few years ago. So to claim they stabilized the buildings is ironic considering there would be no need to stabilize if they spent a tiny fraction of that money for maintenance all along.
Antoniette Baima Nickless on June 06, 2012
Daddy crossed the ocean five times. On his first two trips to America he came through Ellis Island. When he went back to Italy, he was conscripted into the Italian army. After World War I, he married my mama. In 1920, they came to America. Daddy bought second class tickets, so Mama didn’t see Ellis Island. I haven't seen it either, but it is where our American story began.