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 http://www.preserve.org/nylc/ellis2.htm).
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.
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
"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
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 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
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
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.
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.")
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
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)