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How Poetry Saved a Building: The Re-Opening of Angel Island Immigration Station

Posted on: February 17th, 2009 by National Trust for Historic Preservation

 

A packed tent at the re-opening ceremony.

A packed tent at the re-opening ceremony.

It was an inspiring moment. Despite pouring Pacific rains and high wind warnings, I joined an enthusiastic group of more than 500 on the ferry at San Francisco’s Pier 41 on Sunday morning to witness history. We were headed for the grand re-opening of the Angel Island Immigration Station, this time, thankfully, not as a detention facility, but a newly restored interpretive site.

Often described as the “Ellis Island of the West,” more than 350,000 immigrants were processed, and sometimes detained at Angel Island before they were allowed entry to San Francisco and could call America home. The arrivals not only braved an uncertain future, far from the world they knew, but entered a hostile world where racism was written expressly into law. Starting in 1882 the Chinese, who made up the majority of the immigrants processed at Angel Island, were subject to the Chinese Exclusion Act, a race-based law that persevered for an astonishing 61 years. The Immigration Act of 1924 made that law even more severe and established strict quotas on immigration with a particular focus on Asian countries.

The newly restored detention barracks.

The newly restored detention barracks.

The centerpiece of Sunday’s ceremony was the completed restoration of the building that served as detention barracks for immigrants from 80 countries. In 1970 the building was in serious disrepair and slated for demolition. It was then that Alexander Weiss, a ranger with the National Park Service, made an astonishing discovery. Inventorying the building by flashlight, Weiss stumbled upon Chinese characters carved into the wooden walls where the detainees were housed. Experts soon revealed that the characters formed poems, many fully intact. These written memories have helped us understand the emotional experiences of newcomers to the West in the early 20th Century. On Sunday I heard the children of detainees, most of whom have now passed away, express gratitude for the restoration. The stories of crossing the ocean, they explained, were often too emotionally difficult for their parents to tell.

The translation for this carved poem is at left.

Translation at left, in italics.

“Detained in this wooden house
for several tens of days,
it is all because of the Mexican exclusion law, which implicates me.
It’s a pity heroes have no way
of exercising their prowess.
I can only await the word so I can snap Zu’s whip.

From now on,
I am departing far from this building.
All of my fellow villagers are rejoicing with me.
Don’t say that everything within
is Western styled.
Even if it is built of jade, it has
turned into a cage."

... Read More →

The National Trust for Historic Preservation works to save America's historic places. Join us today to help protect the places that matter to you.

National Trust for Historic Preservation

National Trust for Historic Preservation

The National Trust for Historic Preservation, a privately funded non-profit organization, works to save America's historic places.

Newly-Restored Angel Island Immigration Station Re-Opening Today

Posted on: February 15th, 2009 by National Trust for Historic Preservation 2 Comments

 

The Immigration Station on Angel Island.

The Immigration Station on Angel Island.

Today, the U.S. Immigration Station on Angel Island, which we included on our annual list of America's 11 Most Endangered Places back in 1999, will re-open after more than three years of restoration and preservation work. During that time, many improvements have been made to stabilize this National Historic Landmark, set within a California State Park, and the interpretation of the Immigration Station’s story has been enhanced.

Nowadays, when it’s difficult for us to imagine things other than as they are, places such as Angel Island Immigration Station serve as potent connectors to the past. How different our contemporary experience of travel is from that of the average immigrant arriving at Angel Island Immigration Station in San Francisco Bay. Like Ellis Island, the Immigration Station on Angel Island was a major gateway to America. Established in 1910 and in operation until 1940, the Immigration Station is often referred to as the "Ellis Island of the West;" however, it was also known as "The Guardian of the Western Gate" because of its role in policing and enforcing restrictive immigration policies.

This small island (barely one square mile) near Tiburon provided the setting for immigration processing for hundreds of thousands of immigrants arriving from Pacific routes. Imagine, after a sea voyage of a week or more, venturing down a gangplank and along a pier to face interrogations, physical examinations, and even detention in a cluster of institutional buildings on a small island surrounded by the glories of San Francisco Bay. In spite of the beauty of its setting, Angel Island Immigration Station evokes the hardships faced by generations of America’s Asian immigrants, particularly Chinese. Over the years the Immigration Station became such a well known bottleneck that immigrants developed strategies and crammed to ensure that they were able to parrot “right” answers during grueling interrogations.

Poems carved into the barracks wall.

Chinese poems carved into the barracks wall.

Although all nationalities were received at the island, the Immigration Station is especially poignant for the Asian American community because of restrictions on immigration imposed by the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, which was amended, extended, and expanded several times between 1888 and its repeal in 1943. Enforcement of the Chinese Exclusion Act was central to the Immigration Station’s function and transformed Angel Island from a reception and processing center into a residential detention facility for many Chinese nationals – as well as others. Over the years the victims of race-based exclusionary laws were detained at Angel Island for an average of three weeks, sometimes for months and even for years. The Immigration Station was the first, and sometimes only, foothold in a new and hostile country and its cramped barracks of tiered bunks provided an improvised home to detainees. The walls of the Immigration Station bear witness to the human traffic they sheltered: numerous inscriptions and an estimated 135 carved poems survive, tangible markers of loneliness, suffering, injustice, determination, and the lure of immigration.

Sometimes the scale of a specific historic resource and the vision for its revitalization demands a team effort, uniting staff and resources across offices, departments, and agencies. The results that will be unveiled today at Angel Island are the fruit of many years of effort and collaboration. The Angel Island Immigration Station Foundation (AIISF) is the nonprofit partner of California State Parks and the National Park Service in the effort to preserve, restore and interpret the historic immigration station. Save America's Treasures and American Express Partners in Preservation, two of the National Trust for Historic Preservation's valued partnerships, also contributed much-needed funding.

AIISF’s remarkable fundraising and planning achievements demonstrate the results of an undaunted and ambitious vision that started small and ended big and were only achieved through organizational persistence, creative collaboration, leveraged funding, and extensive public outreach. The refurbished site will offer visitors a taste of what immigrants must have felt as they first grappled with life in a new and foreign land.

For decades, the Immigration Station was a final gauntlet beyond which stretched family members, opportunities, freedoms, new horizons -- the golden west. Once symbolic of the intentional obstacles and systematic deterrents placed by governmental policies in the path of immigrants, Angel Island is now a monument to human resilience and endurance. Angel Island’s immigrants persevered and prospered and contributed to the growth of their adopted country, enduringly influencing its culture and democracy. Now is the moment for Angel Island Immigration Station to take its rightful place as a national symbol of Pacific immigration and for the lives and stories that still mark its walls to find a wider audience.

As AIISF’s website puts it: “Tell your friends to make the journey across the water, through time, and deep into the American soul.”

Public tours of the Immigration Station will resume April 1, 2009.

-- Hugh Rowland

Hugh Rowland is the program administrator and development associate for the Western Office of the National Trust for Historic Preservation.

The National Trust for Historic Preservation works to save America's historic places. Join us today to help protect the places that matter to you.

National Trust for Historic Preservation

National Trust for Historic Preservation

The National Trust for Historic Preservation, a privately funded non-profit organization, works to save America's historic places.

Christened with Watermelon Juice, Lincoln, Illinois Continues to Celebrate its Most Famous Resident

Posted on: February 12th, 2009 by National Trust for Historic Preservation

 

Lincoln christening his namesake town with watermelon juice. (Image: http://www.geocities.com/findinglincolnillinois/)

Lincoln christening his namesake town with watermelon juice. (Image: http://www.geocities.com/findinglincolnillinois/)

Does America take Lincoln’s birthday for granted? Not in Lincoln, Illinois, the only town in the country named for Abe Lincoln before he became famous—while he was still a young attorney on horseback serving Illinois’ 8th judicial circuit.

I can speak from experience, having lived in Lincoln for 26 years before relocating to Washington in 2002. But we Lincolnites never take even the smallest factoid of Lincoln lore for granted. For example, everyone who has lived in Lincoln, Illinois, knows that:

  • Lincoln christened his namesake town with watermelon juice, long before he became famous—at the Lincoln depot where a statue depicting the momentous event still stands.
  • On his judicial circuit rides, Lincoln would plead his cases at the Postville Court House. A replica of the court house is a popular tourism attraction on Fifth Street near the edge of town. When the State of Illinois had to close a number of state-owned historic sites several years ago due to lack of funds, long-time community activist and volunteer Shirley Bartelmay stepped forward to organize a group to staff the site and keep it open for visitors.
  • The signature Abe Lincoln Heritage Event still takes place every fall—the National Railsplitting Festival, when teams from all over the country gather at the Logan County Fairgrounds to test their mettle at splitting logs in record time.
  • The only real property that Lincoln ever owned other than his home in Springfield, was the lot at 523 Pulaski Street, next door to my husband’s office on the downtown Lincoln square. Today the lot is the site of Sherwin Williams, commemorated only by a plaque on the building.
  • Just about every town in Illinois has its Lincoln impersonator, and so did we. At any public event, you could see Charlie Ott walking around in his frock coat and top hat, shaking hands—his bearded face always solemn. He showed us very little of Lincoln’s humorous side. Most fascinating was the strong rivalry between Ott and his chief competition, Harry Hahn, from neighboring Mt. Pulaski—and there were many arguments over whose Lincoln was the “real one.”
  • The high school sports teams, of course, are the Railsplitters—or Railers. Famous Railers include Brian Cook, formerly a forward with the Lakers, now the Orlando Magic, and Tony Semple, who was offensive guard for the Detroit Lions. The school’s fight song concludes with:
    “ . . . if dear old Abe were here, I know what he would do,
    He’d say ‘Lincoln, I’m proud of you—oo—oo!’”

Come to think of it, I guess I’m pretty proud, too.

-- Valecia Crisafulli

Valecia Crisafulli is the director of the Center for Preservation Leadership at the National Trust for Historic Preservation.

The National Trust for Historic Preservation works to save America's historic places. Join us today to help protect the places that matter to you.

National Trust for Historic Preservation

National Trust for Historic Preservation

The National Trust for Historic Preservation, a privately funded non-profit organization, works to save America's historic places.

Oakland's Restored Fox Theater "Worth the Trip"

Posted on: February 10th, 2009 by National Trust for Historic Preservation 5 Comments

 

Sign

The sign for the Fox Theater, Oakland.

Oakland, California. San Francisco’s New Jersey, snarky bridge & tunnel references and all. (As a proud Jersey boy, I think I’m allowed to say that.)

Oakland also has to contend with one of the most frequently repeated quotes about an American city -- yes, I’m talking about Gertrude Stein’s observation about Oakland that “there is no there there.”

Ms. Stein was not, as almost everyone assumes, comparing her native Oakland to her adopted Paris and suggesting that Oakland was a podunk town lacking in substance. Rather, the remark stems from a visit she made to Oakland in the 1930s as part of a book tour. While there, she went to visit her childhood home and couldn’t find the house. It’s not a catty quip, it’s a melancholy reflection of a disconnect from childhood memories.

Still, the misunderstanding of the quote stubbornly lives on, as does the latent snobbery toward Oakland that’s just below the surface of many resident’s of “the City” across the bay. Having made my home in San Francisco for 17 years, I’m afraid I’m part of the problem -- I tend to treat the San Francisco Bay crossing as if it were the Straits of Gibraltar rather than the three-mile wide puddle it is. In my defense, I don’t own a car, and I know just a wee bit too much about what could happen to the BART tubes in the Big One to want to make the crossing on a regular basis.

Performers took the stage during the opening.

Performers took the stage during the opening.

But if I’m part of Oakland’s problem and have played my own small role in holding back a long overdue urban renaissance in Downtown Oakland, I’m ready to make amends. Last week, I had the privilege of attending the Grand Opening of the Fox Oakland Theater, and I gotta say, I was blown away. If Oakland too frequently comes up short in head-to-head comparisons with San Francisco, its time to recognize a fundamental fact: Somehow, a profound attack of cultural amnesia allowed San Francisco’s magnificent 1929 Fox Theatre to be demolished just months after its closure in 1963. The Fox Oakland could easily have met the same fate, but Oaklanders never completely gave up on their Fox Theater, which opened the year before the San Francisco Fox and closed thee years after the closure of its sibling across the bay.

The next few decades were not kind to the Fox, but somehow it survived. In 1996, the City of Oakland purchased the Fox. Two years later, recognizing that the Fox was still at risk, the Oakland Heritage Alliance put the Fox on its endangered list, and shortly thereafter spun off the Friends of the Oakland Fox. That same year the City made a commitment to begin repairs, and Jerry Brown was elected Mayor. In a series of acts of faith, pride, and a little bravado, Oakland moved at first haltingly, then full force with the restoration of the Fox. Many organizations and people can claim a role in the rebirth of the Fox, but the support and vision of Mayor Brown and the tireless efforts and sheer exuberance of developer Phil Tagami were key.

The restored ticket booth.

The National Trust for Historic Preservation played its part too. I had the dubious pleasure of touring the theater after its purchase by the City when the roof was shot and it was a petri dish for every mold, mildew, and fungus known to man. Recognizing Oakland had a diamond in the rough, in 2003, we provided a $5,000 Mitchell Grant for Historic Interiors to hire a conservator for the restoration of the Hindu deity statues that are one of the highlights of the interior. Two years ago, we provided a $75,000 grant for the restoration of the Art Deco ticket booth through the American Express Partners in Preservation program. Finally, the National Trust Community Investment Corporation (NTCIC),  in partnership with the Bank of America, made an $11 million Historic Rehab & New Markets Tax Credit Equity Investment in the rehabilitation project.

So, this then, is the tale of two Foxes, or maybe the tortoise and the hare. On the one hand we have San Francisco (a/k/a the hare) which long ago rid itself of an obsolete liability, and left itself with a sad reminder of what we’ve lost in the cruelly-named eyesore that is the Fox Plaza.

The neon-lit lobby of the theater.

The neon-lit lobby of the theater.

Tortoisey Oakland, on the other hand, made no rash decisions. Sure, it took some patience (the Oakland Fox has been closed longer than it was open) but eventually the stars aligned. The results, as I said, are stupendous. I’ve been around preservation long enough to see some remarkable transformations, but this one left me slack-jawed (and no, that wasn’t a result of the freely-flowing champagne).

So San Francisco, you can’t win ‘em all. But take solace in the fact that the best place to see a concert in the Bay Area is just across the Bay. A short ride on BART will deliver you to just about to the Fox ticket booth. Trust me, it’s worth the trip.

-- Anthony Veerkamp

Anthony Veerkamp a senior program officer at the National Trust for Historic Preservation's Western Office.

Updated 2/11/09 to note the partnership between NTCIC and Bank of America

The National Trust for Historic Preservation works to save America's historic places. Join us today to help protect the places that matter to you.

National Trust for Historic Preservation

National Trust for Historic Preservation

The National Trust for Historic Preservation, a privately funded non-profit organization, works to save America's historic places.

This Place Matters: PLT January 2009 Final Report

Posted on: February 9th, 2009 by National Trust for Historic Preservation

 

The Most Worshipful Prince Hall Grand Lodge in Birmingham, Alabama.

The Most Worshipful Prince Hall Grand Lodge in Birmingham, Alabama.

There is a notion among those of us involved in the work of history that the buildings we fight to save, the landscapes that we honor, and the lives that we enshrine in our texts are a part of the very fabric of our national identity. No one building, landscape, or person tells just one story. Often times they serve as connective tissue linking individuals, communities, and events, and they also underscore that we all serve as protagonists in a larger, greater narratives extending beyond ourselves.

The Most Worshipful Prince Hall Grand Lodge in Birmingham, Alabama represents one of these cases. It is not just the architectural styling that makes this building worthy of saving -- this is the place where many African-American citizens in Birmingham came together on a daily basis to get their teeth cleaned, buy ice cream or even attend a concert or two. It is a place which houses the headquarters for the Prince Hall Masons in Alabama. It is where Arthur Shores, a prominent African-American attorney worked with the NAACP legal defense fund to fight racial segregation in education and at the ballot box.

A detail of the Grand Lodge.

A detail of the Grand Lodge.

The Prince Hall Grand Lodge stands at the corner of the Fourth Avenue Historic District, steps away from Kelly Ingram Park and the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church. In this sense, it is also an integral part of the larger leaps that this country took to rectify the wrongs of segregation. As such, this building is the story of an individual, a community, and the nation.

As we have documented in earlier blog postings, for one week this past January, 35 preservationists from across the country came together for Preservation Leadership Training (PLT) to learn and work in one of the cities pivotal to America’s Civil Rights Movement. As with the 25 sessions of PLT before it, each participant left the week armed with new ideas, new goals, and a new network of co-preservationists across the country. With only one week available to them, they also worked hard to come up with creative solutions and ideas for the Most Worshipful Prince Hall Grand Lodge. These ideas have been consolidated together in this final report. The Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr. once stated that “Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter,” and so this PLT class of 2009 says with resounding confidence that this place matters.

-- Priya Chhaya

Priya Chhaya is the program assistant in the office of Training and Online Information Services at the National Trust for Historic Preservation.

The Birmingham PLT team.

The Birmingham PLT team.

This Preservation Leadership Training would not have been possible without the work of our strong local committee and the support of the Alabama Trust for Historic Preservation and Main Street Birmingham, Inc. In addition the program was made possible by the generous support of the The Charles Evans Hughes Memorial Foundation, Inc., Alabama Power Company Foundation, Susan Mott Webb Charitable Trust, Alabama Department of Tourism, Southern Progress Corporation, Balch & Bingham LLP, Brookmont Realty Group LLC, Most Worshipful Prince Hall Grand Lodge, and Brown Chambless Architects

The deadline for applications for the next Preservation Leadership Training in Deadwood, South Dakota is March 31, 2009. To apply, or for more information on PLT, please visit our website.

The National Trust for Historic Preservation works to save America's historic places. Join us today to help protect the places that matter to you.

National Trust for Historic Preservation

National Trust for Historic Preservation

The National Trust for Historic Preservation, a privately funded non-profit organization, works to save America's historic places.