$50,000 raised to fix one building on Ellis Island Preservationists hope effort will encourage U.S. to repair rest of site

November 06, 1997|By new york times news service

NEW YORK - Preservationists worried that Congress is ignoring the accelerating decay of the long-neglected south side of Ellis Island have raised $50,000 to shore up one of the 24 buildings. They say that they hope the work will shame the federal government into paying for emergency repairs to the rest of the site.

Peg Breen, president of the New York Landmarks Conservancy, said a new study indicates that for less than $3 million, all 24 buildings could be stabilized for up to 15 years. "But we have to act now," she said.

The crumbling, overgrown former hospital campus, where immigrants too sick to be allowed entry into the country were sent to recuperate, was named in June as one of the 11 "most endangered historic places" in the United States by the National Trust for Historic Preservation, a nonprofit advocacy group chartered by Congress.

Health Service birthplace

The buildings at risk of succumbing to weeds, rust and rot include a series of contagious-disease wards connected by a 500-foot, eerily lighted corridor, and an autopsy amphitheater, where medical students watched surgeons dissect the bodies of victims of diseases rarely seen in the United States.

Besides being a hospital for immigrants, the south side of Ellis Island was the birthplace of the United States Public Health Service.

Breen said that a small two-story building housing pharmaceutical laboratories, a pharmacist's apartment and a doctor's office had been chosen for the demonstration repair project because it was damaged in ways typical of the other buildings.

Rep. Nita Lowey, a Democrat from Queens on the House Appropriations Committee, tried unsuccessfully in June to get $1 million in emergency financing for repairs to Ellis Island.

All that Congress has done so far, aides to Lowey said, is to direct the National Park Service to produce a short- and long-term plan for the south side of Ellis Island by the end of the year.

In 1992, preservationists defeated a Park Service proposal to let a developer demolish 12 buildings and build a hotel and conference center. Others, however, have questioned the historical importance of the buildings on the south side.

The Landmarks Conservancy has put together a team of nine private contractors who are contributing about $30,000 worth of materials and labor. Loews Hotels, a New York company that has contributed to the World Monuments Fund, a preservation group, requested that $10,000 of its donations be earmarked for the project, said Bonnie Burnham, president of the fund. The conservancy added $10,000 of its own, and the National Trust for Historic Preservation contributed $1,000.

'Sad side' of island

Raynor Rogers, an architect at Lehrer McGovern Bovis, the construction firm overseeing the project, said contractors would seal windows and doors, patch holes in the roof, install new copper flashing, gutters and leaders, lay plastic matting to prevent weeds from growing, repoint the brick masonry and salvage interior fixtures.

"Our hope," Breen said, "is that through continued stabilization, the south side of the island will be opened again, and the public will be able to go over there to experience this part of the story. It's the sad side of Ellis Island, but Americans should be very proud of the public health programs that began there. Important history occurred there."

Pub Date: 11/06/97

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