The Threshold of America - Ellis Island Immigration Station, 1898
LAST year, when the flames of the burning immigration buildings on Ellis Island illumined the waters of New York harbor with a fierce glare that made the Liberty statue's electric beacon appear pale and insignificant, there were many in the crowd watching the fire from the Battery sea-wall and Castle Garden who openly rejoiced over the destruction of those monuments of ugliness.
Even among the Federal office-holders of time Immigration Bureau the first feelings of regret at such quick destruction of the laborious records of many years soon gave way to satisfaction at this irrevocable doom of the wretched barns and architectural rubbish heaps where the great majority of our would-be citizens were wont to receive their first disagreeable impressions of America.
The sanguine view that anything, no matter what, must result in improvement was received but dubiously by those of us that have no fondness for certain types of governmental architecture.
Apprehension was relieved when the announcement came from Washington that a trial was to be given, at last to the long deferred Tarsney act -- passed during Secretary Carlisle's administration, and put into practice by Secretary Gage -- according to the provisions of which the designs for future Federal buildings are no longer to be furnished by 'selected government architects, but by independent competitors, our best architects pledging themselves either to act as expert judges or to enter such competitions without hope of compensation in case of failure.
How well the architects have lived up to their pledges may be judged from the fact that for this, the first important trial under the new act, the following architects consented to submit plans: McKim, Meade, & White, Carrère & Hastings, Boring & Tilton, Alfred Barlow, and Bruce Price, all of New York, and J. L. Smithmeyer, of Washington; while Theophile Chandler, of Philadelphia, and Robert S. Peabody, of Boston, agreed to act as judges together with J. K. Taylor, the supervising architect. Messrs. Boring & Tilton of New York won the prize.
The Problems and Needs to Consider for Ellis Island
The difficult problem to be solved in the establishment of this, the greatest immigrant station in the world, as called for by the government programme, lay in planning a fire-proof structure which would keep immigrants free from all outside interference until discharged, while affording conveniences to resident relatives or friends to communicate with them at the proper time, at the same time providing all facilities required by the officials of the Immigration Bureau, Quarantine station, and Customhouse for the proper discharge of their varied duties.
Compliance with these fundamental principles demanded a new station that would be adapted to the housing and despatching of thousands of immigrants, together with provision for the countless relatives and professed friends flocking to the island simultaneously with the arrival of each new ship-load.
This meant immense waiting-rooms, men's and women's dormitories accommodating a possible total of fifteen hundred sleepers, a restaurant capable of supplying food to thousands, a hospital equipped for the treatment of any disease or emergency, docks and wharves with immediate transportation facilities for passengers and baggage to all points on this continent, a special post-office, customhouse, and telegraph station, with numberless administration offices, courts of inquiry, witness-rooms, and detention pens, quarters for physicians, missionaries, employment and information bureaus, and sundry charitable enterprises, besides baths, lavatories, laundries, and abundant toilet facilities, and all the other needs of this greatest of caravan series perched on an island of diminutive size.
According to the accepted plans, illustrations of which are furnished, there are to be a main building and a separate hospital.
The Process For Immigrants
The immigrants, after landing from the barges that convey them from their vessels to the island, will come up to the front entrance and pass up the main stairway, fenced off from the public, landing in the centre of the front hall, thence pass by the examining surgeons and matron to detention pens for men and women, and into separate medical inquiry-rooms, or pass directly into the general examination-room with a large central space for the chief registrar and side aisles for his assistants.
After passing the medical examiners and registrars, those who may have been detained may go into their respective detention pens, while the main stream of discharged immigrants descend the main stairway, then pass to the left along a mezzanine gallery, enclosed with glass so that all will be plainly visible to the persons in the general information-room, as well as to those still waiting in the detention pens.
Arriving at the foot of the stairs, the discharged immigrants may go either into the Italian and German bureaus, and thence to the New York ferry, or down stairs to the large railroad and steamship rooms with long central ticket-counters and adjoining baggage-rooms, express offices, and lunch-counters, connected by a covered passageway with the mooring-places of the various barges that will convey passengers direct to their respective railroad stations.
Contract-labor suspects will be detained in a special room, where they and whatever witnesses may appear will be examined, and will then be either liberated into the main exit stairway or consigned to the special-inquiry room, connecting with strongly guarded detention pens for men and women.
Above, on the second and third floors, will be the administration offices and dormitories, with special sleeping-rooms for detained and excluded immigrants. In a wing at the northern end of the building, next to the New York ferry, will be the restaurant and lavatories, with special dock facilities for taking in supplies, and with a roof garden on top for recreation.
The hospital building is to be sufficiently detached to allow the air to pass freely about all sides of the building, and is to be raised a few feet above the level of the ground as well, to allow air to pass underneath, and to give room for all proper heating and ventilating apparatus below.
The general plan of the interior is promised to be such that there will be no dark corners, and an open air passage will isolate the special wards from the main halls. Ample balconies will extend ,along all sides, and a roof garden and enclosed solarium on top are to connect with all the floors by an electric lift large enough to admit patients on stretchers.
While it is to be assumed that all these practical purposes of the new immigration station would have been met by a government architect selected according to the plan of political expediency, it may safely be asserted that old Ellis Island and the harbor of New York would probably have suffered in consequence.
For, after all, the chief merit of the plans presented by Messrs. Boring & Tilton is that the little island, as such, is to be allowed to retain some of its green spaces, while the buildings are to be so placed that, unlike the former immigration station, they will show to best advantage to ships approaching them from the Narrows, and to those who pass to and fro between the island and the city of New York.
Emerson, Edwin, Jr., "The Threshold of America" in Harper's Weekly, New York, Saturday, February 20, 1898, Vol. XLII -- No. 2149. Pages 209 - 210.