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World: Ellis Island -- Restoration of a Historical Landmark

Washington, 12 August 1997 (RFE/RL) -- For more than ten years after the U.S. immigration station at Ellis Island closed it doors in November of 1954, the buildings on the small isle stood abandoned, deserted and left to rot into decay.

The U.S. government unsuccessfully tried to sell the island as surplus federal property. But no federal agency was interested, and the public and private sector were mostly indifferent to the small island.

For a decade, the former immigration station stood empty and unattended. Thieves stole chairs, tables, typewriters -- anything they could ferry across the short distance between the island and the shore. Vandals defaced and ravaged its buildings.

The weather also took its toll on the station. Heavy rains produced water damage that eventually caused the buildings to rot. Snow collapsed the decaying roofs, causing extensive damage inside.

The entire station was in a serious state of disrepair when the American public finally began to take notice. After some prodding, on May 11, 1965, then U.S. President Lyndon Johnson put the deserted facility under the protection of the U.S. National Park Service.

But Congress was reluctant to provide a large amount of money for restoration. Instead, it gave the Park Service just enough funding to shore up the island's sagging landfill.

But by the mid-1970's, when Americans were preparing for the nation's bi-centennial, public interest in the island and its history was rekindled. Park officials decided to open Ellis Island to the general public and in 1976, its first year of operation, 50,000 tourists flocked to the island. Most were outraged by the poor condition of the buildings.

A public campaign was quickly mounted to preserve the Ellis Island immigration station by its centennial in 1992 and refurbish the Statue of Liberty which was also falling into disrepair after years of neglect. The Statue of Liberty Island Foundation was created in 1982 specifically to conduct fundraising to restore both monuments to their original splendor.

According to Diane Dayson, Superintendent of the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island National Monuments, a wide variety of people donated money to the project.

"[There were] families whose grandparents or great-grandparents came over to this country and they felt a need to give back something for what their forefathers had given to them," Dayson said in an RFE/RL interview.

Large corporations also donated generously to the project, said Dayson, largely because many of them were looking for an opportunity to "support something that had a viable cause." Dayson said other donors were ordinary citizens who wanted to help restore the historical landmarks.

Finally in September 1990, after eight long years of painstaking and detailed work, the restoration of the main building on Ellis Island and the creation of the Ellis Island Immigration Museum was completed. The entire process cost more than $170 million and is the largest restoration project of its kind in American history.

Today, the museum has five permanent exhibitions containing more than 5,000 artifacts and hundreds of photographs which trace the history of Ellis Island and the immigrants. More than two million visitors from around the world each year visit the museum.

There is also an impressive oral history library housed at the museum which, since the 1970's, has collected more than 1,500 interviews with immigrants and officials who either passed through or worked at Ellis Island.

Diana Pardue, the Chief of the Museum Services Division, told RFE/RL the staff was careful to interview a broad cross-section of immigrants from all over the United States.

"We didn't want the library to consist of interviews with just the Italians or the Russians, although they were certainly the largest ethnic groups to come through Ellis Island during its peak years of immigration," she says.

Pardue says the museum's oral history library is heavily used by students, researchers, historians and the media, and that the museum staff is still continuing to interview people and add to their collection.

Yet the restoration of Ellis Island is far from complete. The south side of the island, which housed the hospital and other medical buildings, remains in decay. The money raised by the Statute of Liberty Island Foundation was not enough to cover the restoration of the buildings on this side of the island.

However, last June, the National Trust for Historic Preservation -- an organization established by the U.S. Congress -- placed the buildings on its annual list of the 11 most endangered historic places in America.

Pardue says this doesn't necessarily mean Ellis Island will get money for restoration of the south side of the island, but it does help to draw attention to the problem.

"A lot of people think now that the museum is open everything has been done," says Pardue. "But there are actually a lot more buildings to be preserved. So we hope that by being put on this list, people will realize that we still need money for preservation and we will be able to get more funding for stabilization of those buildings in the near future."

Pardue says that the National Park Service has asked Congress for $1.5 million in fiscal 1998 to stabilize the buildings on the south side of Ellis Island. But she doesn't know if the Congress will grant it.

"We are competing with a lot of other projects within the National Park Service which need the money as much as we do," says Pardue. "So, we just don't know whether we will get it or not."

Among the dilapidated ruins on the south side are the hospital, where hundreds of thousands of immigrants were treated, and the autopsy amphitheater which served as a kind of giant laboratory for many American doctors, students, researchers and scientists.

Jeff Dosik, a park historian at Ellis Island, says that the amphitheater provided American doctors and scientists a unique opportunity to see a wide variety of sickness and illness rare or non-existent on American soil.

"At that time, many of the most prominent doctors in the nation were eager to come to Ellis Island," says Dosik. "I mean, think about it. Some very interesting pioneering medical work was going on here at Ellis Island."

Dosik says that by examining the immigrants, doctors and researchers were able to develop cures, conduct extensive research and even make medical history.

But for some of the immigrants, being in the hospital at Ellis Island was a frightening experience.

Martha Levashesky Gardner, a Jewish Russian immigrant who came to the U.S. at age 10, said in an interview which is now part of the museum's oral history library that she was quarantined in the Ellis Island hospital for five days because someone on her ship come down with typhoid.

"I was so fearful of what would happen to me, you know," said Gardner. "I was so scared, and everything was frightening."

Gardner said her uncles were not permitted to visit her during her quarantine and she was unable to communicate with the hospital staff.

"It was a horrible experience," Gardner said.

Still, preservationists say the hospital buildings are an important part of the island's history and should be saved.

The future of any further restoration projects on the island is uncertain at best. To make matters worse, the very ownership of Ellis Island is in a legal dispute between the states of New York and New Jersey, both of whom claim historical rights to the property.

Last April, a judge recommended that a border be drawn right down the middle of Ellis Island, giving the half with the museum to the state of New York and the half with the rundown buildings to New Jersey.

Both states are appealing the decision.

But Dayson says she isn't worried by the dispute, adding that it doesn't really matter which state owns the island.

"Regardless of whether it is agreed that the island belongs to New Jersey or New York, we will continue to operate the same way we are operating now since we are federally funded and federally legislated," says Dayson. "It would have no impact on us whatsoever."

Pardue agrees. She says she believes the dispute will not adversely affect the museum, its efforts to receive funding for further restoration projects, or its popularity.

"Ellis Island is a very popular tourist site," says Pardue. "Especially with Americans. Overall, I think Americans are very proud to have relatives who came through Ellis Island."

This is the third in a three-part series on Ellis Island. See part-one World: Immigration: America's Ellis Island -- Isle of Hope and part-two World: Immigration: America's Ellis Island -- Isle of Tears.