Saving Ellis Island's South Side
By Margaret Foster | Online Only | Apr. 6, 2010
Every year about two million people visit Ellis Island, where they can glimpse the abandoned buildings of the south side of the 27-acre island—but not set foot in them. The National Park Service opened the restored Great Hall in 1990, but it can't afford to do more than stabilize the 30 buildings of the island's former hospital complex, part of the National Historic Site.
This month, the nonprofit group that has focused on restoring the rest of Ellis Island is struggling to survive. Since its formation in 1999, Save Ellis Island, the park service's official partner, has raised more than $32 million for the South Side's buildings. Yet it must come up with $500,000 by the end of the month to stay in business, prompting fears about the fate of the empty buildings on Ellis Island.
"If Save Ellis Island disappears, it would be enormously difficult to start this project again," says Peg Breen, executive director of the New York Landmarks Conservancy. "If America can't save Ellis Island, what good are we? It's the closest thing we have to a national shrine."
The National Park Service says the situation isn't dire. "The buildings are in no direct, immediate danger of falling down because we've stabilized them. But we don't have any money to restore them," says Darren Boch, spokesman for the National Parks of New York Harbor. "In the meantime, the South Side is there. It's not going anywhere; it's just that the public can't go there."
Ellis Island's Other Side
Save Ellis Island is "the boots on the ground," says Wendy Nicholas, director of the Northeast Office of the National Trust for Historic Preservation, which placed the South Side of Ellis Island on its 1992 and 1997 lists of America's Most Endangered Historic Places and has won funding for the complex through Lowe's and Save America's Treasures. "They're focused on the South Side of Ellis Island every day."
Unlike years past, the National Park Service's 2011 budget did not include money for the South Side of Ellis Island.
Last month Save Ellis Island cut its staff of 12 down to "four and a half," says Judy McAlpin, president of Save Ellis Island. The nonprofit has raised only about $65,000 of the amount it needs. "It took a long time to get [the restoration projects] moving. It would be even harder to get it back moving again if we had to suspend our operations. … We've raised a little, and we're still at it."
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