Celebrating the Immigrant: An Administrative History
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On May 28, 1976, some twenty-two years after the Immigration Service abandoned its famous property, formal opening ceremonies took place on Ellis Island. Regional Director Jerry Wagers welcomed the assembled guests, who included Senator James Buckley (Republican-New York) and three members of the state's congressional delegation: Representatives Elizabeth Holtzman, Bella Abzug and John Murphy. Associate Director of the NPS Ernest A. Connally and Peter Sammartino, who had been so instrumental in bringing about this occasion, each spoke of their satisfaction that in the bicentennial year the public could at last visit this historic site.

The next day regularly scheduled tours began. A ferry carried visitors from Liberty Island to Ellis six times a day, seven days a week through the summer and into the early fall. During those months more than 45,000 persons took the one-hour tours. NPS guides conducted a poll among them, finding the majority wanted to see the facilities fully or at least partly restored.

The Park Service discontinued the tours for the winter and reopened the immigration station in May 1977. Ferries left for the island four times daily from Battery Park in lower Manhattan and three times from Liberty State Park in New Jersey. A writer for The New Yorker, who took a tour one Saturday in the 1977 season, recorded these impressions: "...the ruins are handsome and probably would make a good spooky place to wander around in, [but] the Park Service doesn't allow such freedom." The guide kept reminding his group, "please, please stay with him, because he would hate it if one of them should step in a hole or be hit by a falling piece of plaster." Both dangers seemed slight to the reporter, "since a good number of the areas [through which they passed] were protected with special plywood passageways constructed by the Park Service." The writer pronounced the hour-long guided tour "pleasant," with perhaps the best moment coming at the end when the visitor emerged from the main immigration building and looked out at Manhattan. It is "a view that takes in the western shore all the way from the financial district to the skyscrapers of midtown. . . .[A]nd it still holds that promise of prosperity which many would-be Americans must have heard when they set out from Europe." [1]

While the public could now see limited parts of the main immigration building, the $1,000,000 appropriated by Congress in 1976 certainly had not made it possible for NPS to arrest further deterioration of the facilities, nor to proceed with significant restoration. During the summer of 1977, Gerald Karr, an architect from the Denver Service Center, conducted a survey at Ellis that underscored this point:

Almost every architectural component in the Main Building is damaged in some way... [P]laster, floors, drains, windows, paint, wood trim, ornament, toilets, millwork, stairs. . .[are] severely deteriorated and require repair or replacement.

All [other] structures share the same problems with the Main Building: no heat, ruined finishes, defective drains, some structural damage, and leaking roofs.

Karr estimated that just to halt the deterioration of structural components and architectural finishes and to provide minimal safety equipment would cost at least $2.5 million.

It was also becoming obvious that the entire seawall surrounding Ellis had to be repaired to prevent the island from eroding. The engineering firm of URS/Madigan, under contract with the NPS, made a survey of the necessary work and estimated its cost. They found total rehabilitation would require about $5 million.

These reports indicated that even if Congress eventually appropriated all of the $6 million that it had originally approved for development of the historic site, the sum would not cover the most essential needs. Consequently, in November 1977 Congressmen Jonathan Bingham (Democrat-New York) and Edward Koch (Democrat-New York) sponsored House Joint Resolution 651 to increase the ceiling authorization to $50 million. Bingham testified on behalf of the bill before the Interior Subcommittee in 1978, and the New York City Council also called upon Congress to make additional funds available to restore Ellis. Late in 1978, Congress finally passed and the President signed the National Parks and Recreation Act, which contained a reduced authorization for the island of $24 million. [2]

While this measure was working its way through the legislative process, NPS Director William Whalen, at the request of the Secretary of the Interior, appointed a study team to identify additional management and use options for Ellis Island. The team, [3] headed by Ted McCann, produced a report in May 1978, which found that since 1965, when the NPS took over the property, it had spent only $2.5 million on its care. In addition, much of that funding had been released only due to outside pressures (Restore Ellis Island Committee) and in the interest of the bicentennial celebration. Over all, the report charged, "...little interest and even less money has relegated the site into a second-class member of the National Park System."

The team found that "years of neglect, vandalism and the natural forces of an island environment" had taken a heavy toll, and millions of dollars were urgently needed "to save, much less restore, parts or all of the site's physical structures and its future usefulness as a park. . ." At a minimum, the seawall had to be rebuilt; permanent sewage and water supply systems, with mainland connections, should be installed; all structures to be retained should be supplied with modern heating, ventilating and air-conditioning facilities; and up-to-date lighting, telephone, fire-fighting and burglar alarm systems were required.

The 1978 study then outlined five options for developing the property, ranging from the 1968 proposal to demolish all but the main building to "total restoration" of the entire immigration station. Depending on which course was followed, the rough-cost estimates ranged from a low of $25 million to a high of $100 million. Though this document provided useful background data for later NPS planning projects, it never received formal approval from the NPS Director or the Secretary of the Interior. [4]

If the estimates in this study were correct, the new authorization would not quite cover even the least costly option; but that was not the most serious problem those responsible for the care of Ellis Island faced. Once again Congress did not follow up its authorization with matching appropriations. All told, between 1978 and 1982, Congress provided about $8 million for development of the facility. This permitted the NPS to carry out some repairs and stabilization, most of it barely visible to the public. Further repairs aimed at water-proofing the main building were undertaken. The seawall within the ferry slip and in other places was rehabilitated, a septic-tank system was installed, and stone and brick walls were repointed. For a time the NPS was helped with repair and maintenance work by labor provided through the Youth Conservation Corps and the CETA program. [5]

All of this, however, did not prevent further deterioration; it certainly did not answer the question of what should be restored, what stabilized, and what demolished on the island, nor solve the problem of how to obtain funds to implement any plans ultimately adopted. In 1979 and 1980, the Department of the Interior and the NPS tried to address these questions and problems. First, the Park Service created still another planning team, led by Michael Adlerstein, architect/planner. [6 ] The group went to work in 1979 and by December 1980 issued an Analysis of Alternatives for a general management plan that "explored a range of possible actions for management and development" of both the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island. The document discussed four alternative courses of action concerning the former immigration station: minimal preservation and use at a cost of $32,700,000; total preservation and use of all thirty-three structures at $77,800,000; the planning team's preferred alternative at $54,050,000; and implementation of the 1968 plan, now estimated to cost $42,950,000.

The team's preferred alternative might be described as a plan for modest, but more than minimal preservation, leaving open the possibility of further development at some future date if substantial private donations came to supplement public resources. Accordingly, this plan recommended that the main immigration building (including the railroad ticket office), the baggage and dormitory building, and the kitchen and laundry building should be preserved with public and private funds. Exteriors of these three structures should not be altered, but extensive repairs should be carried on inside them. Most of the interior of the three would be devoted to interpretation of two main themes: "the immigrant experience at Ellis Island and the broader concept of immigration to America." Some space would also be utilized for administrative and management purposes and museum support activities, such as storage for artifacts and offices for museum staff, thereby alleviating the acute shortage of space on Liberty Island that had been a problem from the Museum's opening. The rest of the structures on island one (powerhouse, greenhouse, bakery and carpentry building) should be preserved and adapted for various uses by the NPS and/or non-profit ethnic organizations, which might want to prepare exhibits and sponsor special events (Fig. 6).

The preferred plan also recommended retaining the hospital buildings facing the ferry slip and the ferry building at the head of it. These structures, however, would be stabilized, not preserved. That is, just enough would be done to make them weather resistant and structurally sound, but there would be almost no internal repairs or adaptation, and they would not be heated in winter. Visitors, consequently, would not be permitted inside, though they could walk around the outside of the buildings.

The team suggested, further, that the NPS leave the remaining buildings on the property as they were--no preservation, no stabilization, but no demolition, either. Because of possible safety hazards public access to their vicinity would be barred.

The sunken ferry boat, the team believed, was beyond repair. Its rotted wooden superstructure should be removed, the metal hull left on the bottom of the slip. [7]

The NPS attempted to obtain wide reaction and comment on the Analysis of Alternatives and its recommendations. It distributed copies to the congressional delegations of New York and New Jersey, to state legislators, and to city officials, as well as a number of special federal and state agencies, such as the Federal Advisory Council on Historic Preservation, the Environmental Protection Agency, and the New York and New Jersey State Historic Preservation Offices. Additionally, the NPS prepared an attractive poster-brochure, which briefly summarized the four alternatives set forth in the Analysis of Alternatives and mailed 1,000 of these to interested individuals. In the Federal Register the Park Service announced that it would schedule six public meetings to discuss the document. These were subsequently held during January 1981 in the five boroughs of New York City and in Newark and Jersey City. Only eighty people attended these meetings. Another 200 persons participated in briefings on the Analysis at informal meetings with NPS personnel during January and February. All told, the NPS received written commentary from twenty-seven organizations and fifteen individuals.

During this extensive review process, the Advisory Council on Historic Preservation and the New York and New Jersey state historic preservation officers expressed concern that the study team's preferred alternative would allow potentially useful historic buildings on Ellis Island to deteriorate further. There were individuals within the Park Service who agreed and had long felt that an effort should be made to preserve the entire immigration complex. These sentiments, however, presented the NPS with a dilemma. With inflation arousing national alarm and budget deficits soaring, Congress and the in-coming administration of President Ronald W. Reagan were most unlikely to provide the needed $54,000,000, let alone support more ambitious plans.

The Park Service thought it saw some possible ways out of the dilemma. Congress, at the end of 1980, amended the National Historic Preservation Act, giving the NPS authority to lease historic structures to private tenants and to use the revenue thus obtained for historic preservation work. This opened up the possibility of raising needed money by renting buildings on Ellis Island that the NPS did not require for historical interpretation. [8] The Park Service, in addition, turned its hopes to procuring large contributions from private sources, reversing a position it had taken earlier.

As far back as November 1975, Peter Sammartino, chairman of the Restore Ellis Island Committee, had written to Jerry Wagers, requesting official recognition of his group as "a fund raising organization for Ellis Island." Early in 1976, Nathaniel P. Reed, assistant secretary, Fish, Wildlife and Parks, speaking for the Department, discouraged Sammartino from launching any public drive for donations:

Our experience. . .suggest[s] that we really can only expect a small fraction of what would be needed for something called an Ellis Island restoration. Whatever money your Committee was able to gather in would just not allow very much additional effective work to be completed.

If the general public were to volunteer their dimes and dollars to "Restore Ellis Island," they very well will be disappointed in what they see is done at the Island in the context of all the disrepair that is present.

Despite this earlier pessimism about the efficacy of public fund raising, Secretary of the Interior Cecil D. Andrus signed a Memorandum of Agreement in December 1980, with the Ellis Island Restoration Commission, Inc. (as the Restore Ellis Island Committee was now called) and its president, Philip Lax, who had succeeded Sammartino when the latter retired in 1978. The agreement provided that the commission should "engage in fund raising and receive philanthropic contributions," such funds to be placed in a "special Ellis Island donation account" used for "the preservation and rehabilitation of Ellis Island and/or the conduct of programs and activities at or in behalf of Ellis Island." Before the commission began its public appeal, however, it was engulfed in and became part of a broader planning and money-raising effort for the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island and the celebration of their respective centennials in 1986 and 1992. Let us proceed, then, in the concluding chapter, to examine these activities. [9]

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Last Updated: 24-Sep-2001