Wednesday, September 3, 2014

The hidden Ellis Island Hospital: admitting again, starting October 1

Long-time readers know we have a special relationship with Ellis Island... the New Jersey side. As a volunteer with the National Park Service partner non-profit Save Ellis Island, I tell the little-known story of the immigrant hospital that once treated and cured over a million people in the first half of the 20th century. I've explored portions of the 29-building unrestored hospital complex, but I haven't been able to share that much with you because, well, it hasn't been open to the public. Why share something hidden that you can't go to see for yourself?

That's about to change.

Starting on October 1, Save Ellis Island will be conducting reservation-only hard hat tours of the island's south side, including several sites within the historic Public Health Service hospital. Visitors will see rooms where doctors worked to cure immigrants of illnesses ranging from measles to the infectious eye disease trachoma. While there's very little furniture left in the wards, the walls and windows tell a compelling story, reminding us how hard it must have been for sick immigrants to have their American dreams delayed by illness. 

The hospital was a city unto itself, and the tour will reflect that. More than a million people were treated there, with mortality of only 3500 souls. The morgue and autopsy room will be on the tour, as well as the laundry that cleaned and sanitized up to 3000 pieces of linen a day (imagine the cool machinery involved with that!). You'll also get to see the large (but yet to be fully restored) lawn and recreation space where recuperating patients enjoyed fresh air, sunshine and a breathtaking view of lower Manhattan.

Befitting the hospital's unrestored state, this is a program for folks who are comfortable with uneven surfaces, dust and peeling paint. The buildings are safe, but they definitely won't pass the white glove test.  

If the prospect of getting into buildings that haven't been open for 60 years isn't cool enough, tour participants will be getting an extra treat: a really unique (and hidden!) art exhibit. The artist JR is in the process of installing a project that repopulates the hospital with some of the immigrants who traveled through Ellis. I had the opportunity to check out a few of the areas he's already worked on, finding hope, poignancy and whimsy mixed among more than a dozen life-sized historic photos installed on the walls, windows and fixtures.

Revenue from the ticket sales for the tours will support SEI's ongoing restoration and preservation work on the hospital buildings. As you can imagine, bringing more than two dozen century-old buildings back to life isn't a quick or inexpensive task.

Keep an eye on our Facebook page and the Save Ellis Island web page for details on reserving your spot on an upcoming tour. Who knows -- I may even end up being your guide!

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