Ellis Island Gets Rehabbed for Public Tours

Ellis Island Gets Rehabbed for Public Tours

Its south-side hospital complex will open for the first time in 60 years.


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Ellis Island hospital complex has been neglected, but Statue Cruises recently opened corporate offices there.

bildeFor decades, tourists to Ellis Island have been barred from visiting the enormous south-side hospital complex, where immigrants were screened and treated for infectious diseases and other ailments.

But Save Ellis Island, a small nonprofit charged with rehabilitating those 30 buildings and providing education programs, is hoping to lead tours there for the general public by the end of this summer. The initiative will start out as a modest pilot program, with a limited number of available tickets.

It is, however, a big step toward increasing tourism to an island that is largely in the shadow of its more popular neighbor, the Statue of Liberty. In late May, the island's first-ever commercial tenant moved into the hospital complex, providing critical cash to help with the renovation process. Such an enterprise could become a model for future funding.

"Many people don't know that portion of the island even exists, but it will become a new sightseeing opportunity," said Janis Calella, president of Save Ellis Island, which is raising funds for the restorations.

The nonprofit has led private tours of the south side, but only to educators and students over the age of 18, and occasionally to other groups by appointment only.

The National Park Service, which oversees the island, said the reopening of the south side could be a fascinating draw for visitors. The buildings served as a clearinghouse to America from 1892 to 1954, until the island's role of screening immigrants ended. The complex, neglected over the years, fell into a state of disrepair that kept it isolated from the public.


Statue Cruises put $120,000 into restoring its office space on Ellis Island. Office Photo: Buck Ennis

That changed on May 28, when Statue Cruises, the ferry company that transports visitors to the island, quietly moved its New York headquarters and 18 corporate employees to one of the buildings. It is a temporary move born out of necessity for Statue Cruises, which had spent 576 days operating out of a makeshift floating office on one of its boats because Superstorm Sandy damaged its former home in Liberty State Park in New Jersey.

Statue Cruises contributed $120,000 toward the restoration of the space it occupies, in what is called the Laundry Hospital. It has a one-year lease with an option for a second year, but Michael Burke, COO of the ferry company's New York operation, said he'd like to keep some of his staff on the island permanently, even after Statue Cruises moves back to its Liberty State Park offices in the historic railroad terminal—which sustained water damage from the storm.

"We have talked about keeping a satellite office here," Mr. Burke said.

Such a deal would involve continuous revenue, and it has sparked the imagination of John Piltzecker, superintendent of the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island.

"The arrangement with Statue Cruises has us very excited about what the next opportunity should be," he said. "We will continue to explore other tenants, but they'd need to understand that this is a historic place and people arrive here by boat."

Save Ellis Island began its restoration work in 1999. It has volunteers and a small number of staff members who now are gearing up for the public tours, Ms. Calella said. Statue Cruises has agreed to promote the tours on its website, where visitors can purchase tickets for the ferries that take them to Ellis and Liberty islands. But tickets will be available only through Save Ellis Island. The nonprofit will charge tour fees that will help raise money for the restoration of the other structures on the south side.

All but one of the buildings—where Statue Cruises moved—are uninhabitable. Even the laundry building, which has had $1 million in repairs, requires an additional $1 million of restoration work. It was used to launder clothing and bedsheets and operated as a morgue. Autopsies were performed there as well.

"The buildings on the south side are critical to telling the story of Ellis Island," Mr. Piltzecker said.

Mr. Burke speculated that an organization in the medical field might be a candidate to rent space for special events held on the island.

"Visitors could go into an operating room that has been abandoned since 1954," he suggested.

The building complex was at one time the largest public health facility in the U.S., where 1.2 million immigrants were detained for medical reasons, such as tuberculosis.

Mr. Burke and his staff are simply glad to be back on land. Their 19-month exile on a boat at the Liberty State Park marina—conducting business with their cellphones and being rocked back and forth each time a commuter ferry passed by—is over.

Ellis Island is still hampered by damage from the storm. Its utility system, which was flooded, needs to be rebuilt. The main visitor hall and its museum have temporary heating and air conditioning, which means that the historic artifacts remain in storage until some time next year.

"We have a long road ahead in recovery," Mr. Piltzecker said.