The crumbling old sick ward opens off a long hallway, separate from the rest of the Ellis Island hospital complex. Plaster peels from the walls. Broken porcelain light fixtures hang haphazardly above where beds once stood. The low clanging of boats and the splash of waves on the breakwater drift in through cracked windowpanes that showcase a resplendent view of the Statue of Liberty. This is where the sickest immigrants came on their final days.
“If you found yourself in this room, you were either too sick to survive or too sick to stay,” tour guide Jessica Cameron-Bush said. “And this was your last view — the Statue of Liberty.”
The historic complex, where 1.2million immigrants received medical care between 1901 and 1954, is opening to the public on Wednesday for the first time in 60 years. The complex of 29 unrestored buildings is located across the ferry slip from the fully-restored immigration museum.
As part of the tour opening, an exhibit by artist JR titled Unframed – Ellis Island, will be on display throughout the abandoned complex. The exhibit uses life-size historic photographs of immigrants and others that have superimposed on walls and other parts of the buildings. The effect is eerie. Round a corner, and come face-to-face with the eyes of children staring out from busted windows. Enter a sterilization room and see the doctors who once washed up before surgery. The photos are designed to fade away with time.
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For the volunteer tour guides and historians, walking through the hospital complex is a dream. “To see the photos come to life, it really is so unique. I can’t wait for more people to come and see this,” said Cameron-Bush, who is the educational director of Save Ellis Island Inc., a nonprofit that raised funds along with the National Park Service to partially restore several of the hospital building complexes.
The 90-minute tours, run by Cameron-Bush and others, will take place four times a day and will be limited to 10 people per tour, ages 13 and older. The tickets are offered on a reserved basis by Save Ellis Island and cost $25. Proceeds will go toward the continued preservation and restoration of the complex.
Jan Calella, president of the nonprofit, said the idea to open the crumbling buildings to the public came up after Superstorm Sandy, which ruined the exhibit about the hospital that previously was used to teach schoolchildren.
“It seemed like an opportunity we could not pass up,” she said. “It gives the public a glimpse of history, but also we’re able to show them what happens to historic buildings when they don’t get the care they deserve.”
In its day, the complex was the largest U.S. Public Health Service institution. Sick and pregnant immigrants were treated before they were allowed to enter the country – or were sent back to their native land. The facility included wards for contagious diseases, mental health and obstetrics. The laundry facility housed giant washers; a massive autoclave sterilized beds.
Visitors can stand in the old morgue, an angled room with a stadium seat so doctors could watch autopsies performed. About 3,500 people died at Ellis Island — 1,400 were children felled by scarlet fever, tuberculosis and other illnesses rampant in years past.
“It’s gloomy now and has a romantic feeling, but this was not the way it was when it was opened,” historian Barry Moreno said. “It was very clean, hygienic and state-of-the art.”
Visitors will wear hard hats as they wander through broken glass, into rooms without electricity and across overgrown grass strewn with refuse. The areas where the public will go have been tested and cleaned, but nothing has been actually restored.
“We want people to see it,” said volunteer tour guide Susan Kaufman. “If they see it, they'll want to preserve it.”