New Jersey moves toward repairs on Ellis Island $4.6 million sought for renovation on 'Sad Side' of site

December 30, 1998|By KNIGHT RIDDER TRIBUNE

ELLIS ISLAND, N.J. - John Lusko of Bayonne, N.J., stared at the Statue of Liberty from his hospital window during his two-week stay at Ellis Island in 1926. He had the measles.

At 8, he didn't know what the giant figure sparkling in the harbor represented. But the clean white sheets on his bed, a change from the straw and rags he used to stay warm in Poland, told him that she stood for something special.

"It was the first time I had ever seen it," said Lusko, now 80. "I saw all the water around it and all the ships coming in and I was excited. Everything was new."

In the seven decades that have passed, the wind, rain and sun have taken their toll not only on Lady Liberty but on the buildings on Ellis Island.

The massive statue was completely refurbished for her centennial celebration in 1986. Restoration work on four buildings on the northern end was completed in 1996.

Now the south side closest to New Jersey, known as the "Sad Side," because of its state of disrepair, is due for major renovation. The buildings were used for the administration, examination, detention and hospitalization of immigrants.

Dispute settled

In settling a century-old jurisdictional dispute, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in May that the original island, which was about 3 acres when it became this country's main immigration point in 1892, remained under New York's jurisdiction, but that about 22.5 acres of fill added between 1890 and 1934 was New Jersey's property.

The New Jersey legislature is considering a bill to spend $4.6 million for the restoration of 29 historic buildings on the New Jersey side of the island. The money would be added to $2 million that Congress allotted this year to begin emergency structural repairs.

The National Park Service, which oversees Ellis Island, issued a report this year which stated that the buildings have reached "an accelerating state of deterioration" due to more than 40 years of neglect.

Among the brick structures in severe decay is the hospital complex where Lusko and thousands of others momentarily stopped en route to a new life.

The hospital, a former majestic sight for incoming refugees in French Renaissance design in red brick and limestone, is now a mass of dingy buildings with falling bricks, peeling paint, cracked facades, and boarded-up windows behind a barbed-wire fence with signs reading "Danger."

Inside the measles ward where Lusko stayed, pipes have turned to rust, plaster and debris cover the dirt floor that was once linoleum tile, and steel frames are peeling from the walls like bark off a tree. A variety of plants grow through the crevices, including poison ivy. The windows are either broken or blown out.

The legislation, which is in the Assembly Appropriations Committee, would be New Jersey's way of getting its newly acquired territory on par with its northern rival's.

'A greater responsibility'

"New Jersey should do its share not because it has to but because it should," said Assemblyman Neil Cohen, a Union County Democrat who co-sponsored the bill and the Assembly Deputy Democratic leader. "We have a greater responsibility than simply planting a flag there which visually establishes New Jersey's interest, but we also need to have the responsibility of ensuring its protection, restoration and resurrection for future generations."

Caretakers on the island said restoration work on New Jersey's portion will carry a price tag similar to the $200 million project on the northern end. The $6.6 million in state and federal funds is just enough to put a patch over the crumbling structures. The last tenant on Ellis Island was the U.S. Coast Guard, which used it as a training facility. The buildings have been abandoned since 1954.

"Our goal is to add 10 years to the life expectancy of these buildings," said Richard Wells, director of planning and development at the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island National Monuments. "It's conceivable that we'll have a collapse if we don't stop or slow down the rate of decay. If we wait until we get the $200 million, then we might not have anything left to restore." Wells said it will take $200 million for a complete renovation of the buildings on the New Jersey end of the island.

For New Jerseyans, there is something else on the line: pride.

"The New York part is very restored, while the slum part belongs to New Jersey," said Assemblywoman Joan Quigley, a Hudson County Democrat and the prime sponsor of the legislation. "That hurts."

New Jersey Gov. Christine Todd Whitman, who hailed the Supreme Court's 6-3 ruling as a major victory for the Garden State, said saving the structures was crucial.

U.S. Sen. Frank R. Lautenberg, who lobbied Congress hard for the $2 million in federal funds, recently toured the crumbling former women's and children's hospital ward on the south side to push to get the additional money. It was where 355 babies were born, records show.

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