1 Project: An American Treasure--Ellis Island

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An American Treasure

Project: South Side, including Ferry Building, Ellis Island, NJ

Architects: Einhorn Yaffee Prescott Architecture & Engineering P.C., Albany, NY; Mark Thaler, AIA, principal in charge; Andy Domian, principal, construction administrator; Massoud Ghassem, project architect; Don Fiorino, architect/ project supervisor, National Park Service, Liberty Island, NY

By Martha McDonald

One of our nation's best known landmarks, Ellis Island served as the federal immigration processing center in New York Harbor from January 1, 1892 until the 1920s, when the U.S. began processing immigrants at its consulates. The island remained open and was used as a detention center and a Coast Guard base during World War II. In 1954, it was closed and abandoned.

After processing more than 12 million immigrants entering this country, the buildings on the island remained empty for many years, falling into a state of abysmal disrepair. In 1965, President Lyndon B. Johnson placed Ellis Island under the stewardship of the National Park Service, and in 1990 the main registry building reopened as the Ellis Island Immigration Museum on the north side of the island, which is now part of New York State. The 29 hospital buildings and the Ferry Building on the south side of the island, however, remained untouched. The south side was listed on the World Monuments Fund 100 Most Endangered Sites list in 1996 and on the National Trust for Historic Preservation list of America's 11 Most Endangered Historic Places in 1997.

Work commenced on the south side in 1999, following the 1998 Supreme Court decision regarding sovereignty of the island. The court decided that the original portion of the island (3.5 acres) would go to New York, while all of the subsequent landfill area (22.5 acres) was awarded to the state of New Jersey.

The restoration of the south side of Ellis Island involves a public-private partnership between the National Park Service and a non-profit group called Save Ellis Island, Inc. (SEI), formed in 2000. Judith R. McAlpin, president of SEI, notes that in addition to their role in the immigration process, the hospital buildings also represent the first time the U.S. public health system took serious steps to protect the public from new and uncontrollable diseases. "They were the latest in medical building design at the time," she says.

Einhorn Yaffee Prescott Architecture & Engineering P.C. (EYP) of Albany, NY, has been involved in the south side project since 1999, when the firm was brought in to stabilize the three main hospital buildings, the laundry and the psychopathic ward buildings on the south side. The firm also directed the $6.4-million restoration of the 1936 Ferry Building, which opened to the public earlier this year. Originally designed by Charles Delano of Delano & Aldrich and built at a cost of $133,000, it replaced an earlier structure that had deteriorated. The Ferry Building was often called the happiest building in New York City because it was the point of departure for immigrants after they had been processed on the island.

The long, rectangular (24x250 ft.) single-story structure consists of three main rooms: the central pavilion, with its 36-ft. ceilings and enormous steel windows, that served as a waiting room for immigrants; the north wing, which housed a lunch room and kitchen facilities; and the south wing, which was occupied by the U.S. Customs Service. It is topped with a 32-ft. cupola trimmed with lead-coated copper; gate houses flank the building on both ends.

EYP worked closely with Don Fiorino, architect/project supervisor with the National Park Service, on the project. "We started with the structural stabilization and asbestos abatement of the hospital buildings on the south side," says Mark Thaler, AIA, principal in charge with EYP. "When we first came to these buildings, they were in horrible condition. The roofs were leaking or non-existent and trees were growing in the buildings. There were large piles of debris and guano everywhere and the grounds were covered with poison ivy and sumac. The first job was to clean out these buildings and stabilize them."

Then EYP and Fiorino began work on the Ferry Building. One of the first projects was asbestos abatement. Thaler explains that some of this asbestos was under the floor slab. "The floor slab was stable, but there was tidal space under it," he says, "so water would fill it when the tide came in. The underside of the floor slab was honeycombed. It had to be cleaned up and reinforced. The workers had to go inside at low tide to do the work. The pipes had been wrapped in asbestos and they had gotten wet and the asbestos has fallen into the muck. It was a dirty job."

One of the biggest challenges was keeping water out of the building. Fiorino explains that after a new roof was put on, water was still leaking into the building. "The upper cap of the cupola was deteriorating, so we removed it," he says. "We found that the wood sheathing under the cap had deteriorated. It was like oatmeal. So we rebuilt it and replicated the cap, salvaging the ornamental fluted band at the top of the cupola. This solved the water problem."

EYP also replaced the upper concrete slabs supporting the roof. "When we started probing the roof, we found that it was paper thin, instead of the 4-5-in. slab that we expected," says Andy Domian, EYP's construction administrator. "It was remarkable that it was still standing. We had to come up with a quick repair, so we inserted metal decking under the existing concrete roof, held in place with steel angles bolted to the bearing wall. Then we pumped concrete into that space, creating new concrete roofing without removing the existing roof. We were able to solve the problem without greatly impacting the schedule."

The exterior of the building was re-pointed and extensive terra-cotta repairs were done. Some spot re-pointing had been done earlier, but there wasn't enough money at the time to do the whole building. "This held up well," explains Fiorino, "so we were able to finish the job."

The terra-cotta repair on the exterior, including the window surrounds, was done by Imperial Construction Group of Elizabeth, NJ. "It turned out that the main frames of the windows were integral to the building, so we repaired them, and replaced the deteriorated lintels with stainless steel," says Domian. The steel windows were also repaired on site.

The next phase was adding the utilities. These were located in the ceiling of the corridor that stretches behind the Ferry Building, connecting it to the north and south sides of the island. This portion of the corridor measures 300 ft. long by 12 ft. wide. "The mechanical systems were located above the corridor ceiling, running from the Ferry Building to the south side," Thaler points out. "They are sized to accommodate all the buildings on the south side, in preparation for the restoration of the buildings."

Inside the Ferry Building, the plaster walls and ceilings were replaced in all of the rooms. In the central waiting room, the tile portions of the walls were repaired using historic tile taken from behind the four waiting benches placed against the walls. Two of the large wood benches could be restored and the other two were replicated. The terrazzo flooring required only patching, cleaning and polishing. "All of the doors and metal casement windows have been repaired or replaced," Fiorino points out, noting that the doors leading from the Ferry Building into the corridor were completely gone when restoration began. The central waiting room and the north room (the former lunch room), now house museum exhibits relating to the south side hospital complex and the Ferry Building itself. The restored room on the south end of the Ferry Building is used for SEI's educational programs and other functions.

The work also included the restoration of the bathrooms located off the corridor. EYP tucked the mechanicals into the bathroom ceiling and also put them above a small room once used as a guard station, to avoid equipment on the roof.

The contractor for the interior of the Ferry Building was Joseph A. Natoli Construction Corp. of Pine Brook, NJ. Everyone agrees that the workmen did very fine work and were dedicated to the significance of the history of the buildings. "Natoli has a commitment to historic preservation," says Liz Jeffery, director of program development, SEI. "This was a difficult job, working on an island in the middle of the Hudson River. It's a harsh climate. And there was a lot of security involved. All of the workers were screened and every truck that entered the island was checked by canine security units."

Now that the Ferry Building is restored, the next phase of the work is focusing on the corridor that connects it to both sides of the island. The wood windows lining these corridors are being repaired or replaced, concrete lintels are being rebuilt and brick re-pointed by Schtiller & Plevy of Newark, NJ.

Meanwhile, long-term plans call for an estimated $250-$300 million, 10-year restoration of all hospital buildings on the south side of the island to convert the complex into the Ellis Island Institute and Conference Center, which will focus on immigration and public-health issues. The facility, like the Ferry Building, will be operated and maintained by Save Ellis Island under a formal agreement with the National Park Service.

With approximately 40 percent of Americans tracing their origins back to Ellis Island, it is not surprising that there is a movement to save all of the buildings on the island. "What is different about work here on the island," says Thaler, "especially seeing the state of repairs when we arrived, is the fact that this is a national treasure that was nearly lost. It is an honor and a privilege to work on saving this important part of our American heritage. It's a different level of what you are saving here. It's our nation's history. And, it's interesting and important to tell the story of immigration with sensitivity to the differences we have. This is a place where people of all different races and cultures came together. American history has grown through waves of immigration and backlashes. The reality is that people who came in years past retained their traditions and brought incredible depth to our culture. That story is being told here."

"Our hope is that the power of the place will evoke ideas and discussion, exploration of concepts related to the central themes of the island – immigration and public health, and also diversity, tolerance and the welfare of the population," says McAlpin. "These ideas are as relevant today as they were 100 years ago." McAlpin also sees the possibility for further development of public/private partnerships to work together to save our national treasures. "We have 392 national parks and many of them have considerable cultural resources that need attention," she says. "Given the scarcity of resources that we all see today, we ought to be able to harness people's interest in these parks and work together to preserve them." TB




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