Echoes of the Past on Ellis Island
Story & photos by Deborah Loeb Bohren
The beautifully restored Main Arrivals Hall on Ellis Island contains a wealth of information about the roughly 12 million immigrants who passed through its’ doors between 1892 and 1954. In fact, it is estimated that one in three American’s can trace their families roots to the immigration station. From original manifests showing individual names and other personal information to details about the ships themselves, a visit to the Main Arrivals Hall is simultaneously a personal and historic journey.
To take a “hard hat” tour of the unrestored Immigrant Hospital on the south side of the island, however, is to truly step back in time. The nation’s first, and once largest, public health service hospital, was composed of thirty state-of-the-art buildings at its’ peak. Over the course of its short life — opened in 1901, completed in 1914 and put into disuse in the 1930s — the complex included a general hospital, four operating rooms, isolation wards for infectious diseases, a maternity building, psychiatric wards, a morgue, physician and nurses residences, an outdoor recreation pavilion and the infrastructure needed to support it all, e.g., a laundry, kitchen and boiler room.
Abandoned and untouched for more than 60 years, the buildings look sadly derelict from the outside, with boarded-up windows and chipped concrete steps. But once inside, there is an unexpected sense of decayed grandeur that is in one breath both heartbreaking and breathtaking. The hallways have a labyrinth feeling, while the physician’s residence boasts grand fireplaces, ornately carved moldings and views of the Statue of Liberty. There are soaring ceilings and windows in the wards; private rooms with ensuite bathrooms; and harbor views of the land these immigrants were trying to hard to reach. As the light filters through the windows, you can feel the presence of those that passed through as you look at the chairs they sat in and walk in their footsteps.
Remnants of their time here, a crooked mirror on the wall, a desk still cluttered, a metal locker with its’ door ajar transport you backward. Look closely at the peeling paint and rusted doorknobs and the colors that at first glance appear pale and faded, take on an intensity that speaks to the hopes and dreams of those who found themselves here. Add to the scene “Unframed”, a special art installation by French artist JR. Twenty-six life-size portraits of real Ellis Island immigrants are interspersed on windows and walls throughout the hospital and accompany you on your visit.
Save Ellis Island, the National Park Service private sector non-profit established to raise money to restore and re-purpose the historic buildings offers a unique hard hat tour of the abandoned hospital complex. For 90 minutes you will travel through 60+ years of history as you wind your way through 1.5 miles of buildings, corridors, and rooms. Photos are allowed, but no tripods and no dawdling no matter how mesmerizing that room is (i.e., you have to keep up with the group). You can sign up once on Ellis Island, and the tours are on a first-come, first-served basis.
Another option if you are photographically inclined and an abandoned building junkie like me, is an in-depth “hard hat” experience with photographer Tony Sweet. In conjunction with SEI, he offers 6-hour photo excursions several times a year. Accompanied by an SEI docent and with the benefit of Tony’s expertise and exquisite photographic eye, you have (relatively) unfettered access to areas in the old hospital not included in the public tour; can plant your tripod just about anywhere, and while you still have to wear your hard hat and stay with the group, you have ample time to explore the nooks, crannies, and ghosts throughout the abandoned hospital.
Deborah Loeb Bohren is a fine art and travel photographer. Photography has been Deb’s passion since her father put a camera in her hand when she was only five years old. Today she combines that passion with her love of travel, using her camera to capture the intersection and interplay of light, line and color to create visual stories from the flea markets of Paris to the dunes of Morocco and from Machu Picchu to Havana and beyond. She lives in New York.