Thursday, April 9, 2015

Ellis Island Hard Hat Tour

Last month I went on the Hard Hat Tour of the abandoned hospital complex in Ellis Island, which has been closed and abandoned for 60 years. Most of these buildings have slowly fallen into disrepair. The tour is offered by Save Ellis Island, the organization formed to raise the necessary funds and oversee the rehabilitation, preservation and adaptive re-use of the unrestored buildings located primarily on the south side of Ellis Island.
Save Ellis Island’s mission is to preserve the historic hospital buildings on Ellis Island. Our goal is to encourage an understanding of immigration in a globalized world, a story that has always been a part of American history. Our vision is to engage the public in historic preservation by showcasing the rehabilitation and preservation of an American icon – Ellis Island.
Save Ellis Island, in partnership with the National Park Service, will rehabilitate and re-dedicate these buildings for public education and enjoyment – a place for civic discussion of issues that define our humanity, the constant movement of peoples around the globe and the impact of this travel on mutual respect, cultural tolerance and global health and well being.
The Ellis Island Immigrant Hospital is the United States’ first public health hospital. It opened in 1902 and served as a detention facility for new immigrants who were deemed unfit to enter the United States after their arrival. Immigrants would either be released from the hospital to go on to a new life in America or sent back to their home countries.  

The hospital complex consisted of 29 buildings spread over 2 islands in New York Harbor. The islands were man-made, using excavated dirt and concrete from the New York City subway system.

Here's a view of the hospital complex from the ferry on my way to the island.

Of the 12 million immigrants who entered America through Ellis Island, 1.2 million failed the initial medical inspection performed by the Public Health Service doctors, and were taken along the covered corridors to the hospitals for further evaluation.
Twelve million immigrants were processed through the Ellis Island Immigration Center during its years of operation. Every immigrant had to go through a thirty-second health inspection upon arrival, although the inspections were often directed more at the immigrants who arrived from second or third class. Tens of thousands of immigrants, or one out of every five, received a chalk mark on their clothing, signaling a health deficiency. These immigrants were often sent on to the Ellis Island Immigrant Hospital to be detained until they recovered or were deemed too sick to enter the United States, in which case they would be sent back to their home countries.

The curved corridor above leads to the laundry room, the first stop of the tour. Much of the original equipment used were still in place, where more than 3,000 pieces of laundry were washed and sanitized daily.

To prevent infection from spreading, all the hospital buildings and structures were connected by covered corridors. 

We also visited the hospital morgue.
The main building of the hospital originally consisted of 120 beds and was eventually expanded to three times that size. Additionally, there were four operating rooms and a morgue. An autopsy amphitheater in the hospital, which contained an eight-cadaver refrigerator, became a well-known teaching hall, drawing medical observers from teaching hospitals in the United States and Europe.

As part of the tour opening, an art exhibit, "Unframed –Ellis Island," by renowned artist JR is on display throughout the hospital complex. The exhibit features life size historic photographs of Ellis Island immigrants installed on 22 interior walls. 
“The idea is to respect the architecture,” JR said, moving past a wheat-pasted tableau where a woman’s hat hovers amid tree limbs seen through a broken window. “I let the walls decide what part of the image should appear.”
When we went to the kitchen, its large range hood has been converted by JR's work into the body of an upside-down ship. 

JR's work is not limited to walls, you can also see them on the floor, cabinets and sinks inside the hospital complex.

Our tour guide in front of another of JR's work in one of the rooms at the hospital complex.

All the furniture and fixtures are long gone, the paint cracked and peeling, the windows boarded up, and dust on the floor, but there is beauty in abandoned places.

All of these rooms are interconnected by hallways and covered corridors. 

Some parts of the hospital, especially the ones closest to the water have been battered by the elements. The island was very much affected during Hurricane Sandy.

Looking out from one of the buildings to another building at the complex. New York City just had another snowstorm a few days before my tour date.

At a certain point along one of the hallways, Lady Liberty peeks out in between two hospital buildings. Ahh hope!

The hospital complex also houses nurses and doctors quarters. This room was once the living quarters of one of the hospital doctors and his family.

The tour did not cover the upper floors of the buildings. This particular area is still part of the doctor's quarters.

Here's another one of those endless corridors connecting the structures.

Then it's back to where we started.  The white stuff on the photo below was where water level reached during hurricane Sandy. There's a lot of work involved in these structures.

The grounds of Ellis Island has a great view of Lady Liberty. Caught this pair when I went out of the main building of the Immigration Center. Caption the photo!

On the other side you could see the lower Manhattan skyline. Of course the view was completely different during the time the hospital was in operation, but really, nothing beats this view.

The main building of the Immigration Center houses the Registry Room.
Jostling three abreast, the immigrants made their way up the steep flight of stairs and into the great hall of the Registry Room. Although many did not know it, the inspection process had already begun. Scanning the moving line for signs of illness, Public Health Service doctors looked to see if anyone wheezed, coughed, shuffled, or limped as they climbed the steep ascent. Children were asked their name to make sure they weren't deaf or dumb, and those that looked over two-years-old were taken from their mothers' arms and made to walk. As the line moved forward, doctors had only a few seconds to examine each immigrant, checking for sixty symptoms, from anemia to varicose veins, which might indicate a wide variety of diseases, disabilities, and physical conditions.
That was interesting, click on the link for more info on the immigration process in Ellis Island.

The main building of the Ellis Island Immigration Center was designed in French Renaissance Revival style and built of red brick with limestone trim. Architects Edward Lippincott Tilton and William Alciphron Boring received a gold medal at the 1900 Paris Exposition for the building's design and constructed the building at a cost of $1.5 million
When it opened on December 17, 1900, officials estimated 5,000 immigrants per day would be processed. However, the facilities proved to be able to barely handle the flood of immigrants that arrived in the years just before World War I. Writer Louis Adamic came to America from Slovenia in southeastern Europe in 1913 and described the night he and many other immigrants slept on bunk beds in a huge hall. Lacking a warm blanket, the young man "shivered, sleepless, all night, listening to snores" and dreams "in perhaps a dozen different languages".
After the immigration station closed in November 1954, the buildings fell into disrepair and were all but abandoned. Attempts at redeveloping the site were unsuccessful until its landmark status was established, Ellis Island was proclaimed a part of Statue of Liberty National Monument in October 1965.

The restoration and adaptive use of the Beaux-Arts Main Building had a construction budget of $150 million, the money was raised by a campaign organized by a political fundraiser. The building reopened on September 10, 1990.

So much history in these buildings, I'm so glad I joined the Hard Hat Tour. It's not much but its my little contribution to save Ellis Island.
Ellis Island was once known as an “Island of Hope” for immigrants who launched new lives in America, but has also been called the “Island of Tears” by newcomers who were turned back to their homelands or separated from their families at the processing center. The historic hospitals, quarantine wards, and support buildings on the south side of the island retain their integrity and haunting beauty. Preservation experts and historians feel strongly that they must be protected and opened to the public. 
Here's a map of the island so you'll have an idea where the tour took us:

If any of you could get the chance, I would definitely recommend the tour. Not only could you see the hospital structures now opened to the public after 60 years, you could also learn about the life of immigrant patients, see JR's site-specific works, and at the same time contribute a little bit to the preservation and restoration of the Ellis Island hospital complex.

Here's the link to buy tickets for the Hard Hat Tour.

Check out the rest of my photos of the tour on Flickr: Ellis Island Hard Hat Tour


  1. Wonderful images. My wife and I plan to do this tour in September. How long did the whole thing take end to end? We are planning to leave from battery Park and I intend to book the earliest ferry which I understand is 1030AM.

    Did you have any issues with carrying camera gear? I know there's a lot of security. I am planning to leave my camera backpack behind and instead just carry my camera with a 24-70 and have a 16-35 in a small bag.

    Any recommendations that you can offer to make the day easier would be appreciated


    1. Hi! Tour was about an hour and half, and was a little bit fast-paced. I think the tour is fitted to cover the necessary areas within its 90 minute schedule. Our tour guide was good but he didn't give us extra time to take photos, so I had to be quick in getting my shots. There were times the front end of the tour was already in another room while I was still taking pictures in the previous room. Just be ready to take lots of quick snaps. I was using my dslr all throughout the tour.

      Hope this answers your questions. Have a great tour in September!

  2. where did you purchase your tickets?

    1. Hi! Sorry for the late reply, but if you click on the word "link" near the end part above, it would lead you to the ticket page.

      I'll also put the link here in my reply but I don't think you can click on it. You could copy the address and put it on your browser so it would lead you to the purchase ticket page:

      Good luck!

  3. Please also note that the above website is not correct, this one charges more for their tickets. The below link is correct!

    1. Thank you for the correction. Maybe they changed the website but when I did the tour, the link I posted was the site that sells the tix. Thanks for the update!

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