Visiting Ellis Island’s Hospital Complex

On June 7, our Friends of the Rare Book Room and ARCHIVE Global: Architecture for Health enjoyed a private visit to the hospital zone on Ellis Island. The private support group Save Ellis Island offers hardhat tours of the hospital complex, which is adjacent to the main reception center operated by the National Park Service. More than 30 people took the ferry from Battery Park across New York Harbor to Ellis Island to learn more about the site and its importance to the history of public health in New York City. Some stayed on for lunch afterward at historic Fraunces Tavern.

Our Save Ellis Island tour guide gives safety instructions before the group enters the hospital zone.

Our Save Ellis Island tour guide gives safety instructions before the group enters the hospital zone.

On the south side of the island, and out of use since 1954, the hospital complex housed would-be immigrants who were not permitted to immediately enter the country. All steerage passengers were inspected—usually for only a few seconds, given their great numbers—and some 1 to 2% were detained for health reasons. Completed in 1909, the 750-bed hospital included wards for infectious diseases, kitchens, massive laundry facilities, an autopsy room, and recreation spaces for patients and staff alike.

The autopsy room.

The autopsy room.

Even in its semi-derelict condition, the complex is one of the few remaining “pavilion” style hospitals in the country. Pavilion hospitals were first built in France in the 18th century, and were enthusiastically endorsed by reformers such as Florence Nightingale in the 19th century. The design emphasized the need for ventilation, with wards built to promote sanitary conditions, provide light, and maximize the circulation of air. Pavilion hospital design fell out of use in the 20th century.

Caged verandas allowed patients access to fresh air while controlling their movement around the complex.

Caged verandas allowed patients access to fresh air while controlling their movement around the complex.

The Ellis Island site, already abandoned and crumbling, was further damaged during hurricane Sandy, and Save Ellis Island is working to stabilize the buildings, while preserving the sometimes eerie atmosphere of the site, now partially overgrown with vegetation. For more information about the complex, and the Save Ellis Island project to bring it back into public view, see: http://www.saveellisisland.org/history/hospital-complex

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Wall with a tide mark showing the level of water during Hurricane Sandy.

We are increasingly offering our Friends group exclusive events such as this visit. If you are interested in becoming a Friend, find out more here. Friends who missed out on this sold-out event should e-mail culturalevents@nyam.org to express their interest in another tour at a later date.