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At Statue of Liberty National Monument, Save Ellis Island, Inc., Works to Restore Ellis Island’s Time-Ravaged Buildings


Pre-1990 (no restoration yet) view of Ellis Island. Note the overgrowth of trees on the property. The ornate building at top (north side) is the Main Building. The New Ferry Building faces the water at the end of the ferry slip. National Park Service Digital Image Archives photo.

When Ellis Island became part of Statue of Liberty National Monument in 1965, its more than 30 buildings were in terrible condition. The north side’s Main Building and some supporting buildings were restored by 1990, but that left 29 buildings on the south side and a major structure (the Baggage and Dormitory Building) on the north side still badly in need of restoration. Save Ellis Island, Inc. was formed in 2000 to work with the National Park Service, the State of New Jersey, and other partners to restore and reuse these 30 buildings.

Ellis Island, which actually consists mostly of landfill, is located in the upper bay of New York harbor, just off the New Jersey shoreline and close to Liberty Island (where the Statue of Liberty is situated). Ellis Island opened on New Year's Day 1892 as a detention/deportation center and subsequently became the main receiving center for European immigrants – “The Gateway to the New World.” More than 12 million immigrants were processed through the Main Building’s Great Hall, and today over 100 million Americans – including the author of this article -- have ancestors who came through Ellis Island.

If you want to see a really neat videoclip of immigrants arriving at Ellis Island, visit this site. Be patient; the opening view of the ferry arrival is disproportionately long.

After closing its doors on November 12, 1954, Ellis Island was abandoned and declared “surplus federal property.” The Main Building, New Ferry Building, hospital complex, dormitories, contagious disease wards, kitchens, and other buildings – many of which had been hurriedly built between 1900 and 1915 -- fell into disrepair and began to decay.

On May 11, 1965, President Lyndon Johnson proclaimed Ellis Island a national monument as a component of Statue of Liberty National Monument. Though the complex was now under National Park Service administration, it is not, and never has been, a stand-alone national park. (To deal with the awkward fact of two national monuments combined into one, the park is commonly referred to as “Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island National Monuments.”)

By 1965, Ellis Island’s buildings were in deplorable shape. Roofs leaked, broken windows gaped, stairways leaned precariously, and pigeons roosted in the Great Hall. Congress provided no funds to restore the historic structures, and it was likely they would soon be beyond repair.

The Park Service began offering limited public access to Ellis Island in 1976. This was the Bicentennial Year, so an Ellis Island celebration was deemed appropriate despite the decrepit condition of the buildings.

The park’s General Management Plan, approved in 1982, called for refurbishing the Main Building on the island’s north side and opening it to visitors. In 1984 the Park Service, in partnership with the Statue of Liberty-Ellis Island Foundation, Inc. embarked on an ambitious plan to renovate the Main Building and all the other buildings on the north side except the oil storage building and the huge Baggage and Dormitory Building.

Six years later, on September 10, 1990, the refurbished complex was opened to the public. The restoration cost $162 million and was the most expensive publicly funded historic preservation project in U.S. history.

The Main Building, an imposing French Renaissance Revival structure, has been restored to its 1918-1924 appearance. It now serves as the Ellis Island Immigration Museum, the National Park Service’s only museum complex devoted entirely to immigration. The adjacent Kitchen Restaurant & Bath House, Bakery, and Carpenter Shop buildings were all restored as office space for the National Park Service.

What about the south side? By the mid-1990s the deplorable, steadily worsening condition of the south side buildings was drawing widespread attention. In 1996, the World Monuments Fund listed Ellis Island’s south side as “one of the world’s most threatened culturally significant historic sites.” The next year, the National Trust for Historic Preservation put Ellis Island’s south side on its 1997 list of “America’s 11 Most Endangered Historic Places.”

To view photos of the Ellis Island buildings, see this site

In 1998, something quite dramatic happened. New York lost its exclusive claim to Ellis Island when the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the preponderant mass of Ellis Island was situated in New Jersey. The court awarded Islands Number 2 and 3 (comprising the “south side”), plus all but 5.3 acres of Island Number 1 – about 83% of Ellis Island’s total area -- to the state of New Jersey. To put a finer point on it, the court ruled all but 5.3 acres of Ellis Island lies within the corporate limits of Jersey City.

The effect of the court ruling was to award to New Jersey the part of Ellis Island built on landfill (using ship ballast and earth removed during New York City subway construction). New York retained sovereignty over only the 5.3-acre area of Island Number 1 containing the Main Building and its supporting buildings.

Since the state boundaries cut through some buildings, the two states have agreed to “share” sovereignty. It remains that neither state has any legal responsibility to repair, restore, or maintain any of the structures on Ellis Island. The Supreme Court ruling did not alter the fact that Ellis Island remains federal property in its entirety. Ellis Island is federal property in New Jersey/New York in the same sense that Yellowstone National Park is federal property in Wyoming/Montana/Idaho.

For a map showing the New York-owned portion of Ellis Island, see this site. Note that the oddly shaped New York tract, which conforms to the original 3.3-acre pre-landfill island, cuts through some of the north side buildings.

Although New York’s pride was injured, this court ruling has worked to the advantage of Ellis Island restoration. In the wake of the ruling, New Jersey residents were energized to mount a campaign to restore 30 deteriorated buildings (the 29 south side buildings on New Jersey turf, plus the Baggage and Dormitory Building on the north side).

In 2000, Save Ellis Island, Inc. (SEI) was formed to “raise the funds necessary to rehabilitate, restore and put to beneficial reuse the currently deteriorated and unused buildings of Ellis Island, located primarily on its south side.”

Save Ellis Island specified these goals:

• Establish the Ellis Island Institute and Conference Center in the 30 yet-to-be-restored buildings on Ellis Island. The Ellis Island Institute and Conference Center will capture the power of place to become a world-class facility for civic engagement and life-long learning on the topics of immigration, diversity, human health and wellbeing, the themes of Ellis Island.
• Maintain and grow our partnership with the National Park Service for fundraising and management of the rehabilitation, restoration, and reuse implementation for the Ellis Island Institute and Conference Center.
• Develop a comprehensive fundraising plan that will ensure success in realizing the maximum participation possible from the private sector.
• Plan and implement a national awareness campaign to highlight the necessity for and national importance of the rehabilitation, restoration and reuse of Ellis Island's south side.
• Plan and implement a national capital fundraising campaign to secure the funding necessary to rehabilitate, restore and beneficially reuse the buildings of Ellis Island's south side.
• Cooperate with the National Park Service to ensure the most efficient and cost-effective progress possible in the effort to rehabilitate, restore and reuse the buildings of Ellis Island's south side.


SEI’s immediate concern was to get the 30 buildings stabilized with emergency repairs costing more than $8 million. Then the restoration work could proceed over a period of 10-15 years.

So far, SEI and the National Park Service have raised $32 million for stabilizing and commencing renovation of the buildings. All 29 of the south side buildings have been stabilized. (Stabilization of the north side’s Baggage and Dormitory Building began in 2005.)

For a map and virtual tour of the south side buildings, visit this site.

The restoration work will be completed in stages. The Ferry Building -- a 1934 PWA project in the Art Deco style -- has been restored already at a cost of $6 million. It was reopened to the public in April 2007, becoming the first building on the New Jersey portion of Ellis Island to be available for public us e in more than half a century. No admission fee is charged.

Two museum educators and tour guides greet visitors at the Ferry Building (properly termed the “New Ferry Building,” since the 1934 building was a replacement). Tours are available as scheduling permits (visitors sign up at the Immigration Museum), and special programs for schools and large groups are available. There is also an exhibit entitled "Future in the Balance: Immigrants, Public Health, and Ellis Island Hospitals"

Work continues on other structures. Major progress has been made on the Laundry and Hospital Outbuilding. (This project and the Ferry Building project were funded by two Save America’s Treasures grants and matching funds from private sources and the state of New Jersey.) SEI’s next major goal is the restoration of the corridor leading from the Ferry Building to the Laundry and Hospital Outbuilding and hospital lawn. When this is completed, SEI will be able to offer limited guided tours of the south side.

When completed, the new attractions will presumably boost the park’s visitation. Last year, total visitation for Statue of Liberty National Monument – including Ellis Island -- was 3.38 million.

Traveler extends hearty congratulations and best wishes to Save Ellis Island, the State of New Jersey, the National Park Service, and their partners as they forge ahead with this important work. We look forward to the day when the Ellis Island Institute and Conference Center will be in full operation as one of America’s most distinctive and historically important cultural facilities


Thank you, Bob, for this important piece.

It will be interesting to see if the NPS and Save Ellis Island, Inc., will be able to restore all the structures on the south side of Ellis Island.

One question I have relates to the feasibility of the timetable. You mention the time horizon available to restore the buildings after the stabilization work of serveral years ago: you say:

"SEI’s immediate concern was to get the 30 buildings stabilized with emergency repairs costing more than $8 million. Then the restoration work could proceed over a period of 10-15 years."

I followed that stabilization process pretty closely at the time. Although the NPS leadership in Washington did NOT put those stabilization funds in the budget, in another demonstration of the need of congressional intervention in the budget process, these stabilization funds were added to the NPS budget by Congress over the objections of the NPS Comptroller.

The NPS preservation architect in charge, who DID support the stabilization project, said that everybody better pay attention, because only 10 years after those poured-concrete buildings were stabilized, they will have deteriorated again to the sorry condition they were at, before the stabilization. In other words, don't even bother to do the stabilization unless you can move quickly to go to full restoration. Years have passed since then, and I am not sure how much time is really available.

An earlier superintendent of Statue of Liberty/Ellis had actually opposed the restoration (it actually seemed he just didn't believe he could ever get all the money together), and suggested a "managed ruin" would be a better idea.

One NPS guy said the problem with the latest campaign is, that in the original campaign, NPS had "sold" that preserving the north side would be preserving Ellis; NPS had never communicated effectively to the public what was so necessary about preserving the south side.

Sort of like, the big original fundraising had been to "save" Ellis, save that significant story of turn-of-the-century immigration, and that had been done in the public mind. Think of all the movies around the time of that fund-raising effort, Godfather II being only one of many.

The new restoration needs a phrase to capture the public's imagination, in the same kind of sense of what ADDITIONALLY can be added to America's story by working on those other buildings.

Thank you Bob for this effort to frame the significance of this restoration effort.

My eyebrows went up too, d-2, when I saw that SEI had, on their official website, alluded to a 10-15 year time frame for completing the renovations. I know there is a sense of urgency to get these buildings restored while the window of opportunity is open, but realistically speaking, budgetary constraints and related issues could very well delay restoration work for some of the buildings long past the time when the current stabilization begins to seriously degrade. I suspect that you're thinking the same thing that I am. Eventually, SEI and its partners may be forced to let some of the least important buildings collapse into final ruination. Let's hope it doesn't come to that.

I'm also very interested in the new plans for the "Peopling of America Museum" at Ellis Island. This seems to be a rare instance in which the National Park Service is getting it exactly right. The story of Ellis Island is important enough that I think that few people would blink if the National Park Service just stuck to that story at Ellis Island. But I do think that the Ellis Island experience would be so much richer if it is used as a launching point to tell the story of immigration to the United States in general. Hopefully this will be a model for many other Parks to come:

I think the key to these sorts of renovations succeeding is when the final product is actually put to good use, rather than having a giant shell of a building that people come to simply gawk at. And the use of the building(s) should be a good fit with the history of the place. It seems like both those things are at least being attempted here, so kudos to all involved. In other words, hosting giant freak parties like they've done on Alcatraz -- bad. EI Institute and Conference Center -- good.

I watched the movie about forgotten ellis island. My grandparents came from Italy and were at ellis island. I have certificates of their arrival. Please restore this and hospitol I cant wait to see it someday. Either restored or not! I am from Indiana so not to far away. It is closer then Italy!

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