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Ellis Island

The Sacrilege of a Shrine

by Carter B. Horsley

The April 1, 1997 recommendation by a "special master" of the U. S. Supreme Court to give New Jersey ownership of about much of Ellis Island raises, once again, important issues about the future of this historic immigration center a bit more than a stone's throw from the Statue of Liberty in New York harbor.

Perhaps now the harbor should be called the New York/New Jersey harbor.

What's in a name, eh?

Who cares who owns the 28-acre island that served as America's gateway to 12 million immigrants from 1892 to 1954? The U. S. Census Bureau has maintained that perhaps two Americans in five can trace their ancestry to Ellis Island.

Perhaps some of them and their kin whose dreams of America were intermingled with their visions of the glories of the New York, and not the New Jersey, skyline. The immigration center is now run as a museum by the National Park Service on the northernmost part of the island that New York will still own even if the Supreme Court accepts without change the special master's recommendations. New York State will appeal the arbitrator's recommendations in the fall, joined by the Municipal Arts Society, a New York civic organization, and others (see pertinent article by David Goldfarb at

The special master, Paul Verkuil, the dean of the Benjamin Cardozo Law School at Yeshiva University, has recommended that New York keep the original island, which was 3 acres, plus another 1.79 acres for the ferry slip to Manhattan, and that New Jersey get the remaining 22.5 acres that were created from landfill over the years.

The view of New York from Ellis Island

Well, the name is not important but the ownership is as it influences what can be done with and on the island.

The three main concerns are preserving the historic sanctity of this national shrine, accessibility and the redevelopment of about two dozen abandoned buildings on the southern half of the small island that is a Natural Park.

New York has resisted attempts by New Jersey to increase public accessibility and it has also thwarted past attempts led by legendary publicist Tex McCrary and New York developer William Hubbard, president of the Center Development Corporation, to create a $140-million conference center on the island's southern half, restoring the ruins of the center; infectious diseases hospital, administrative building and recreation center. (An excellent photograph of the entire island can be viewed in The City Review's review of Sam Fuller's "New York In The 1930's".)

In their superb book, "The A.I.A. Guide to New York, Third Edition," (Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1988), Elliot Willensky and Norval White recalled some of the island's history:

"Among the sundry ideas for tampering with the island whose name is synonmous with the immigrant experience, several have come from noted architects. Based on some sketches made by Frank Lloyd Wright shortly before his death, the Taliesin group proposed a semicircular megacomplex of hotel and apartment towers called Key Project, which looked like an early attempt at a NASA space station in New York harbor.  Several years later, as part of the new Ellis Island National Park, Philip Johnson put forward a monumental, Boullée-inspired, doughnut-shaped pavilion within which the names of all those wo passed through the immigration station would have been inscribed."  A photograph of a model of Johnson's spiral "doughnut" was reproduced in their book and it looks grandly impressive, an unruined Coliseum.

New Jersey wants to make a temporary 1,400-ft.-long bridge to the island from New Jersey permanent and permit pedestrian access. The bridge was erected for the restoration work in the 1980's on the island to prepare for the reopening of the main immigration center building as a museum. Senator Frank L. Lautenberg has gotten $15 million for a new bridge included in the Federal budget for several years, but it has been defeated at the behest of New York.

Last year more than 1.5 million people visited the island. Neil MacFarquar of The New York Times reported April 3, 1997, that studies have estimated that about 115,000 people a year would use a bridge to get to the island "rather than pay the $7 adult fare for the ferry service from Lower Manhattan or Liberty State Park in New Jersey." He also quoted Peg Breen, president of the New York Landmarks Conservancy, as stating that "the footbridge is a Trojan horse….There are some places in America that should stay special, that don't need highways."

Many of the New York opponents to the bridge and to New Jersey gaining control of much of the island raise the specter of crass commercialization that would besmirch the historic nature of the island.

Such concerns sound good, but since no specific proposals for redevelopment of the dilapidated buildings and land in question have been advanced by New Jersey they are premature and there is plenty of design room to accommodate a sensitive, contextual solution. Indeed, one might think that such concerns reflect a dissatisfaction with the rehabilitation and conversion of the main building and its surrounding grounds into the Ellis Island Immigration Museum by the National Park Service in 1990 at a cost of about $150-million was too pristine and that its ruins, or at least more of them, might have been more eloquent, with the implication that the many other buildings on the island, many also in the same handsome Georgian-style architecture, should be left as ruins, even if not accessible.

Ruins have a rich fascination, conjuring ironies and fantasies, achievements and failures. Logic here would have suggested that the main center should have been left in ruins and the abandoned, lesser buildings utilized in a creative and constructive manner that might include restoration of their facades. They are on hallowed grounds, no less than the infamous concentration camps of Germany in World War II. Indeed, the memories of those who did not pass through Ellis Island quickly but had to stay longer, in the hospital, for example, may be much more resonant.

The four-towered main building is very handsome. What has been done there has been done in good taste even if some might quibble over some of the exhibits. As Ada Louise Huxtable argues effectively in her new book, "The Unreal America, Architecture and Illusion" (which is reviewed in The City Review), historic preservation can be something of a misnomer and occasionally an arbitrary, abrupt interruption of a building's changing life. Too often a sanitary rehabilitation can exorcise ghosts and Huxtable observes that "abandonment has its own meaning and message, a direct contact with what once was that disappears with restoration."

I remember visiting Lyndhurst, the former Jay Gould estate in Tarrytown, N.Y., that is now one of the properties of the National Trust for Historic Preservation. What was most impressive to me at the time, decades ago, was that trees had burst through the huge greenhouses and that vines hung down through the skylight of the Neo-Grecian indoor swimming pool. In time, the preservationists have replaced the glass and their authenticity has robbed the place of its some of its magic.

On the other hand, there are many fine examples of historic preservation finding new uses that work well. Union Station in Washington, D. C., may not be perfect and a bit too cluttered with retail uses, but it is one of the great peopled spaces in the country and a place where architecture is unequivocally appreciated.

There is no reason for the abandoned buildings to be inaccessible. There is no reason why some of them cannot be restored and why some cannot be converted to other uses, such as a conference center, a library, and a restaurant.

On June 16, 1997, the National Trust for Historic Preservation placed the southern section of Ellis Island on its annual list of "most endangered places" in the country and a front-page article in The New York Times by David M. Halbfinger disclosed that the New York Landmarks Convervancy, the Municipal Art Society and Preservation New Jersey, civic organizations, planned to lobby Congress for funds for the "emergency repairs" to the abandoned and derelict buildings on the southern part of the island.

The story in The Times estimated that a complete restoration of the "endangered" buildings "would cost about $200 million, adding that the preservation groups have estimated that it would take about $1.5 million to protect the buildings from the elements and $15 milion or as much as $40 million to make them safe for visitors."

The preservation groups and the National Park Service are proposing, the story in The Times continued, "to do only what is necessary to leave the structures as 'stabilized ruins.'"

The romantic notion has some merit, but the history of intelligent, good adaptive reuse of historic properties in this country is encouraging and the lack of a more comprehensive plan for these properties is dispiriting.  

The buildings include a former autopsy amphitheater and are the site of the founding of the U.S. Public Health Service and were also shelter for the internship of resident aliens during World War II.  

The National Trust for Historic Preservation had put the southern half of the island on the "endangered list" in 1992 after the National Park Service had wanted to let a developer demolish 12 of the structures as part of a planned hotel and conference center of the city.  When the development proposal was withdrawn, the property was taken off the "endangered" list.

The demolition of buildings, such as housing projects, an all-too-frequent atrocity, should not be undertaken lightly especially in a cost-conscious age. Generally, their replacement costs are very high. The whole complex should be accessible even if mostly ruins. If some amenities can be provided, fine. If some new uses can be found, so much the better. The notion that a bridge violates the spirit of the island is romantic, but very far-fetched. The bridge is hardly visible from the harbor, anyway.

What is important is what happens on the island. It should be run as a Federal park and New York and New Jersey should cooperate to make it a fine and lasting memorial to the adventurous spirits of those who dared to come to our shores.  The site is large enough, however, that some of the "ruins" could find new uses and conceivably a brilliant design might also be able to accommodate some new construction if an adequate plan can be presented.

New Jersey is not bereft of history.

If successful in its claim to Ellis Island, perhaps it would like Staten Island, too. Well, if Staten Island builds its new ferry terminal designed by Peter Eisenman, fuget'bout'it!

On Sept. 29, 1997, the U.S. Supreme Court announced it would hear arguments in January in dispute between New York and New Jersey over Ellis Island.

The Federal Government had filed a brief siding with New Jersey in August and asking that the Supreme Court reject a proposed adjustment affecting famed immigration center and museum.  

Both states have objected to the finding by Paul R. Verkull, a special master, last April on the fate of the 27.5-acre island.  New York maintains that a 1834 interstate compact gave it  jurisdiction over the island, then only 4 acres in size, as the landfill that expanded it over the years to its present size.

New Jersey has countered that New York's control extends only to the high water mark of the original portion.   (updated 9/30)

On January 12, 1998, the case was heard by the U.S. Supreme Court.  On the Fox News Channel "In Depth" television news program that day, I suggested that New Jersey perhaps had an inferiority complex because it felt it was being given "a cold shoulder by the Statue of Liberty and perhaps it thinks the statue should be placed on a revolving pedestal, or that a barbed wire fence should run down the middle of the Hudson River."  I also suggested on the program that despite protestations by New Jersey representatives that the issue was merely contractual that there might be "hidden agendas" regarding not only access to the island but also development of the property particularly in light of recent proposals by New York City to create a Monte Carlo-like gambling resort on Governors Island across the harbor. (See The City Review stories on "Down to the Sea in Chips" and "Governors Island.") (1/13/98)

In late May, 1998, the U.S. Supreme Court decided the case in favor of New Jersey, giving it control of most of the island and permitting also to share in some of the revenues from the section still controlled by New York with the museum. (5/28/98)

In January, 1999, Governor Whitman of New Jersey announced a $300 million plan for her state's "side" of Ellis Island that would restore many of the buildings there, a plan that deserves praise and puts to shame New York's long record of irresponsibility! (1/22/00)

Letter To The Editor about Ellis Island


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