Hidden history at Ellis Island

Example of a drawing generated by the HABS program. El Morro, San Juan, P.R. Image via the Library of Congress Website.

Example of a drawing generated by the HABS program. El Morro, San Juan, P.R. Image via the Library of Congress Website.

The Historic American Buildings Survey (H.A.B.S.) has been documenting Architecture in the United States since its founding in 1933. Along with sister programs the Historic American Engineering Record (H.A.E.R.) and the Historic American Landscape Survey (H.A.L.S.), the rich history of America’s built and natural environment are photographed, drafted, and converted into paper and digital media which allows them to be retained for future generations…no matter what may happen to the original area or item. H.A.B.S. has a well-established system for generating the documentation it sends to the Library of Congress archives. They include black and white photographs of the building or buildings on large format film, field notes with measurements, digital photographs, and laser scans of a site, and the resultant drafted pages that allow the viewer to study every intricate detail of a design. The collection of H.A.B.S. – produced documentation is so sought-after that it is the number one query for visual images from the Library of Congress.
Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island's Main Building and Baggage & Dormitory. Image by Naomi Doddington.

Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island’s Main Building and Baggage & Dormitory. Image by Naomi Doddington.

Dining Area. Image via the Ellis Island Museum Collection.

Dining Area. Image via the Ellis Island Museum Collection.

For the last several years H.A.B.S. has partnered with Ellis Island in a major project to document many of the buildings at this important site. This summer the team is documenting the Baggage and Dormitory building. This building was originally 2 stories, but a third was added fairly early on, as were enclosed verandas. The fascinating thing is that the additions were made without removing the elements that were once on the exterior of the building. This left former roof skylights in place on the second floor, and created a double ring of circulation around the building. The verandas, as they were called, are in fact very sizeable rooms. The window sills and windows that formerly looked out over the New York Harbor from the first and second floor give way to the verandas instead.
Skylights on the second floor. Image by Robert Arzola.

Skylights on the second floor. Image by Robert Arzola.

During the Second World War, the Baggage and Dormitory building on Ellis Island was converted into a detention facility to house German and Japanese prisoners of war, as well as “alien enemies” of the United States, including Cuban Communists (or alleged Communists) and Mexican radicals. Many Latin American countries even deported citizens of German descent to be interred at Ellis. One particular inner corridor on the second floor was turned into a solitary confinement area. The men living in these rooms have left graffiti on the moldings around the doors, a silent testimony of their time on Ellis.
Graffiti in Spanish. Image by Emily Warren.

Graffiti in Spanish. Image by Emily Warren.

In the 1950’s the Federal Government shut down its operations on Ellis Island, literally locking the door and walking away from the buildings. Restoration efforts began in the 1970’s and the Main Administrative building has been renovated into the museum that tourists see today. A connected, smaller, building has also been renovated to serve as offices for the staff. Aside from these two exceptions, all of the buildings on Ellis have been allowed to decay. The Baggage and Dormitory building had already lost a good deal of its windows which allowed water intrusion to destroy much of the interior by the early 2000’s.
The Team. Hard hats, headlamps, and breathing masks. Image by Robert Arzola.

The Team. Hard hats, headlamps, and breathing masks. Image by Robert Arzola.

Super Storm Sandy (2012) caused major damage to the island. Stabilization efforts over the last several years allow us to enter the building (hard hats most definitely on) but have meant that all of the windows are covered with plywood, rendering the space extremely dark (headlamps required). Inside the building is a layer of dirt everywhere, along with debris from fallen plaster and other failures of materials. One area even has some suspected friable asbestos (dangerous to breathe). We don our breathing masks when entering the building to help protect ourselves.
Me on the staircase. Image by Robert Arzola.

Me on the staircase. Image by Robert Arzola.

My particular project is an exterior metal staircase. This staircase connected the Main Administration building’s 1st floor with the Baggage and Dormitory building’s second floor. While very rusty, it’s actually remarkably sound. The assembly is all rivets and nuts and bolts. The final plan for this staircase was approved for construction in 1924.  The structure is made mostly of L iron, which has led to some very intricate mixtures of plates and brackets to put the thing together. The bones of the structure, which is all that remains today, were once clad in corrugated copper siding. It must have been quite a sight! Thus far I have photographed the structure extensively, created a series of field notes that explore the way the different elements come together, laser scanned the structure, and have started the careful work of creating drawings that are precisely to scale. We will also be taking on a project in Baltimore and a small project at New York’s Museum of Design, Copper Hewitt. Just a little more than three weeks in, this summer is already on a roll!

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