Immigrants’ Final Stop on Ellis Island to Reopen

Immigrants’ Final Stop on Ellis Island to Reopen

For tens of thousands of immigrants, making it to the Ferry Building on Ellis Island was the next-to-last step on a long, arduous journey to America.


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Only a limited number of people will be allowed to visit the Ferry Building, which connects to a hospital complex that needs extensive repairs. Image Credit Librado Romero/The New York Times

Clutching papers that proved they had been cleared by customs officials to enter the country, they sat on high-backed oak benches in the main room waiting to board a boat to Manhattan. For almost 20 years, it was the last way station for New York’s new arrivals.

But like all of the other buildings on Ellis Island, the Ferry Building was shuttered and neglected for decades. The only creatures that passed through it were birds, rodents and the occasional raccoon.

Now, after five years of stop-and-go restoration that cost $6.4 million, it is scheduled to reopen to the public today. It is the first step in a broad plan to reopen all of the buildings on Ellis Island, including a former 750-bed hospital complex that would be converted into an educational institute and conference center.

Eventually, visitors may be able to wander freely through the Ferry Building, which connects the hospital buildings on the south side of the island to the Ellis Island Immigration Museum on the north side. But because the southern buildings are still in disrepair, only a limited number of people will be allowed to sign up to visit the Ferry Building, and only on guided tours.

Inside the Ferry Building, in the lunchroom where some immigrants had their last meals before becoming New Yorkers, visitors will find an exhibit about the hospital complex, which at times held hundreds of patients with infectious and contagious diseases.

Turning those buildings into comfortable meeting spaces for teachers, students and executives is expected to take about seven years and cost more than $250 million, said Judith R. McAlpin, president of Save Ellis Island, a nonprofit group dedicated to preserving the structures.

“We’re only at the very beginning,” said Ms. McAlpin, who is leading the fund-raising on behalf of the National Park Service, which oversees Ellis Island and the Statue of Liberty nearby.

Crews have removed toxic materials, like asbestos and lead paint, from the hospital buildings, but the floors and stairwells are in shabby condition, said Cynthia R. Garrett, the superintendent of the statue and Ellis Island.

In the complex of wards that held people with infectious diseases, much was left as it was a half-century ago. The beds are gone, but the sinks and supply cabinets are intact. In an empty third-floor room in one hospital wing, sunshine beamed through a skylight to a spot where an operating table once stood.

The laundry building, the next to be restored and reopened, still holds a rusted washing machine labeled “The Fletcher Whirlwind” and a giant horizontal dryer for bed linens that was known as a mangle.

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Work on the hospital complex, estimated to cost more than $250 million, will include repairing living quarters. Image Credit Librado Romero/The New York Times

Darcy Hartman, the director of education and public programs for Save Ellis Island, said the group hoped to display the old machines to impress upon visitors what a bustling complex the hospital once was.

April 17 will mark the 100th anniversary of the peak of activity on Ellis Island, when it processed 11,747 immigrants in a single day. In 1907, more than 1.1 million passed through the immigration station there. In the 68 years it was in operation, it processed about 12 million immigrants.

About 90 percent of them passed a doctor’s once-over that was known as a “six-second inspection” and were on their way within a few hours, Ms. Hartman said. The rest were held for further inspection, treatment and even quarantine.

About one of every 100 was refused admission to the country for having a “loathsome and contagious” disease, Ms. Hartman said.

The exhibit in the Ferry Building, titled “Future in the Balance: Immigrants, Public Health and Ellis Island’s Hospitals,” includes pictures of the complex in its heyday in the early 20th century and tales from some of the immigrants, doctors and nurses who spent time there before it was abandoned.

The Ferry Building replaced an original wooden structure that stood on the same site, next to the dock where a ferry named Ellis Island picked up loads of immigrants bound for Manhattan.

The Ferry Building was built in Art Deco style by the federal Public Works Administration for just $133,000 and opened for use in January 1936. It closed in 1954.

The restoration took so long in part because of decades of neglect, Ms. Garrett said.

“This was a ruin,” she said. “It had been exposed to the elements for 50 years.”

Looking up toward the 36-foot-high ceiling in the waiting room, she recalled, “you could see the sky.”

Workers peeled the lead coating off four carved eagles perched atop a cupola that crowns the waiting room and replaced it with zinc, said Don Fiorino, who managed the project for the park service.

They were surprised that the building’s beacon still worked after they replaced the bulb, he said. An old electric wall fan also was cleaned up and plugged back in above a doorway in the lunchroom.

For at least two months, visitors will be able to stand on the gleaming terrazzo floors and gaze out the building’s refinished steel windows at the carcass of the Ellis Island, which sank at its mooring in the 1970s.

The park service plans to cut up what is left of it and haul it away this spring.

Correction: April 9, 2007

An article last Monday about the reopening of the Ferry Building on Ellis Island incorrectly described some of the exterior restoration and architectural features. Don Fiorino, the project manager for the National Park Service, said workers peeled lead-coated copper (not lead) off the building's cupola (not off the eagles perched atop it). The copper was replaced with zinc-coated copper, not zinc. And the eagles are stamped, not carved.