Written by Adrian Scott Fine
Old buildings in a state of ruin, decay and abandonment can be hauntingly beautiful and have always tugged at me more than those that are shiny, pristine and perfectly restored. I want to save them, in part, because their stories are so much more visible and raw.
I cannot think of a better example of this than Ellis Island. When I first visited almost twenty years ago, the newly restored and reopened Great Hall was an amazing place to see and experience as the entry point for nearly forty percent of America’s families. It is profoundly meaningful and personal. But what I really wanted to see that day was the decidedly less grand part of Ellis Island that was off limits to the public -- the south side -- then still largely untouched and taken over by nature since the site closed in 1954.
Sometimes referred to as the forgotten side of Ellis Island, the south side includes nearly thirty historic buildings that once served primarily as a hospital for those that perhaps weren’t lucky enough to gain access to a new start in America. Twice in the 1990s, the National Trust for Historic Preservation placed Ellis Island on our America’s 11 Most Endangered Historic Places list. So did Preservation New Jersey and the World Monuments Fund, most recently in 2006.
As one of the most important places in America telling the powerful story of immigration, for many it may come as a surprise to hear that Ellis Island is yes, still very much endangered today, even more so since the last two weeks.
After years of debate over whether Ellis Island belonged to New Jersey or New York, and despite much hard work and real momentum finally underway, now state budget cuts and a lack of funding commitment at the federal level threaten to undo all that progress. Immediately at stake is an organization called Save Ellis Island. Ten years ago the group came together as a private, nonprofit partner with the National Park Service to help with fundraising to rehabilitate and develop a use for the remaining buildings. Two weeks ago, as New Jersey’s deficit-challenged budget was unveiled, funding support for the Save Ellis Island’s operation was eliminated.
Navigating through a complex maze of federal bureaucracy and years of delays hasn’t been easy for Save Ellis Island. But you have to give them credit for sticking it out and what they, and the State of New Jersey, as well as the National Park Service, have accomplished so far.
As of 2008, all of the south side buildings have been stabilized. The rehabilitation and reopening of the Art Deco style Ferry Building in 2008 marked the first time the public could step foot onto the south side of Ellis Island in more than half a century. Funding through Save America’s Treasures was a primary source of dollars to help make this a reality.
Along with others, the National Trust for Historic Preservation has had a long involvement and commitment to saving all of Ellis Island. Through our work with Save America’s Treasures, we’ve attracted more than $500,000 in private resources to help match federal funds, including awarding a $100,000 grant through the Lowe’s Charitable and Educational Foundation for the work on the Ferry Building.
After so much work and effort going into saving Ellis Island, are we really going to let that all fall apart? We need Save Ellis Island as a nonprofit partner for the National Park Service to continue work and finally get the job done saving all of Ellis Island. With just two weeks left to raise $500,000 to carry on its operation, Save Ellis Island just might need to be saved as well as Ellis Island itself.
Adrian Scott Fine is the director of the Center for State and Local Policy at the National Trust for Historic Preservation.
Save America's Treasures, Preserve America, and the other programs cut or underfunded by the proposed federal budget do more than preserve our country's rich heritage – they put Americans to work. Learn more about the National Trust's campaign to restore this critical funding.