The Island of Dreams

A century ago, if you immigrated to America by ship, the most important part of your journey was the six-minute medical inspection at Ellis Island in New York Harbor. You'd walk past a row of inspectors, each looking for a different disease. Does your head feel itchy? Maybe it's favus, fungus of the scalp. One medical examiner carried a small metal hook, to flip eyelids for trachoma (bacteria that can lead to blindness). Most of the newly arrived would pass quickly, boarding a ferry to Manhattan or New Jersey. But about 10 percent of immigrants needed further checking. They were sent—1.2 million of them, beginning in 1901—to the south side of the island. Here was a 750-bed hospital that tended to those trapped in purgatory, between their old homes and their new.

When Ellis Island shut down in 1954, so did the wards and operating rooms of the hospital. The main hall on the north side of the island was restored and opened to the public in 1990, but the hospital, with its 29 surrounding buildings, remained closed. The walls peeled; ceilings fell in. Moss grew in where iron bars had once guarded psychiatric patients. "Every time we had a storm, something else fell off," says Cynthia Garrett, the superintendent of Ellis Island. "It looked like a ruin."

A $250 million restoration project, which began two years ago, aims to repair the damage of time. Last month workers completed a $6.7 million renovation of the ferry building from which eager travelers departed for the last leg of their trip to America. Today, the building houses an exhibit on Ellis Island's medical history (355 babies were born in the maternity ward). "Together, we've raised $30 million for the project so far," says Judy McAlpin, president of the nonprofit group Save Ellis Island, which seeks donations from the public to supplement funds from the state of New Jersey and the National Park Service. She estimates that the hospital will be restored in the next 10 years.

It won't be put to the same use, of course. One proposal is to transform some of the space into a conference hall and a 250-bedroom hotel. There might even be a rooftop restaurant. In any case, parts of the renovation won't be open to the public. "You can imagine world leaders coming here," says Darcy Hartman, the nonprofit's director of education and public programs. Groups will be expected to hold conferences on important worldly topics, like globalization, health care and immigration. No rates have been set yet, but they will likely be higher than the $32.50 a month the hospital charged immigrants who were once treated there.

To millions of Americans, Ellis Island is a symbol of freedom, a suitable neighbor to the welcoming sight of the Statue of Liberty. Some 40 percent of Americans have at least one ancestor who passed through the island's doors, including a record 11,747 on one April day in 1907. "I never lose the thrill of coming here," says Garrett, wearing a hard hat as she toured the work area last week. "You can really imagine the past and the future." If all goes according to plan, she won't need to imagine so much.