Cornell historic preservation students will rescue historic Ellis Island building -- and gain essential skills in the process

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ELLIS ISLAND, N.Y. -- Historic preservation and planning students from Cornell University are undertaking a volunteer venture to stabilize a neglected structure on Ellis Island -- the Commissioner's House. In doing so, they hope to attract support that may lead to a full-scale rehabilitation of this national monument.

Most people know Ellis Island as the gateway to America for millions of immigrants, who passed through the Immigration Processing Center from the late 1880s through 1954. The Commissioner's House and other historic buildings played a role in the island's history as well. The two-and-a-half story house was erected in 1909 as a home to high-level medical staff who treated immigrants with contagious diseases in the island's hospital facilities.

Professor Michael A. Tomlan, director of the Cornell preservation program, describes the house as an architectural gem -- Neoclassical in style, with details that are a preservationist's dream, such as stucco walls with brick trim, wrought iron "Juliet" balconies straight out of a Shakespearean play, a hipped roof of red clay tiles and bull's eye gable dormers.

The stabilization, which is the first step toward rehabilitation, will take place over four days, March 25--28. The project is the brainchild of 25 historic preservation and planning students from 14 states enrolled in Cornell's College of Architecture, Art and Planning. Assisting them will be about 55 Cornell alumni, among them 35 experts in preservation who are graduates of the college's Historic Preservation Program. Leading the work detail from the college's preservation alumni association is Shelby Weaver Splain, a 1996 graduate who is now an associate with Noble Preservation Services in Zionsville, Pa. All volunteers will work under the direction of site coordinator Barbara Ebert, a faculty member with extensive experience in building stabilization. Other alumni will donate needed materials for the work.

"With every passing year, more of the lesser-known structures on Ellis Island are falling into ruin," said Tomlan. "Without taking some immediate steps to stabilize what remains, the task of rehabilitating or restoring the property will become even more difficult."

"The Ellis Island project is a 'win-win' arrangement," said Mark A. Rodman, one of the student organizers. "It will give preservation students an excellent opportunity to learn about their field first hand as well as help protect a historically important building so that it can be rehabilitated at a later date."

"Ellis Island is crucial not only to America's immigration history but to our medical history as well," pointed out Kathleen Foley, another student organizer. "The physicians of the island were among the first to understand the necessity of isolating patients with contagious diseases and sterilizing equipment and bedding to break the chain of disease. The architecture of the buildings reflects this pioneering work."

The project will include:

  • removing overgrown, moisture-holding vegetation, which threatens the building's structure and deteriorates its surface;
  • sealing windows and doors to keep out the elements as well as birds and rodents;
  • installing louvers and Plexiglas in the window and door panels to let in air and light and deter mold and mildew;
  • removing leaves and bird droppings that have accumulated inside the building;
  • removing loose lead paint from the building's interior walls;
  • protecting the building's elegant ornamental trim and functional metal details.

The Cornell students first came up with the plan when they visited the island during a field trip in October 1998 and observed another building that had been stabilized. The work was done by professionals over several weeks and was funded by the New York Landmarks Conservancy. The conservancy sought to demonstrate that low-tech, low-cost stabilization techniques could be successful and cost effective for all deteriorated buildings on the island.

The students realized that they had the energy, skills and resources to take on a similar project -- and that by allying with alumni supporters they could carry out a stabilization quickly and affordably.

Working with the National Park Service, they selected the Commissioner's House as the ideal building to stabilize. The house is located at the water's edge and is seen by thousands of tourists daily. They reasoned that the highly visible project would expose a wide audience to the desperate condition of most Ellis Island buildings.

"We are enthusiastic about this project, " said Diane H. Dayson, superintendent of the Statue of Liberty National Monument and Ellis Island. "We look forward to working cooperatively with the Cornell students and alumni. Support from institutions such as Cornell is important to the National Park Service. We, likewise, are pleased that the stabilization effort at Ellis Island will benefit the students and help prepare them for their professional careers."

The students also met with Cornell preservation program alumna Andrea Tingey, senior historic preservation specialist with New Jersey's State Historic Preservation Office, which has been instrumental in the project's development.

"It's a wonderful idea," said Tingey, "and great for the Park Service. Not only will they get a building stabilized but they'll get much-needed publicity for the buildings on the island that still require stabilization and rehabilitation."

Work on the project will commence on Ellis Island on Thursday, March 25, at 8 a.m., followed by a press conference at the project's site at 11 a.m. (raindate: Sunday, March 28, at 2 p.m.). The project will conclude with a VIP inspection on Sunday, March 28, at 1 p.m. Notables who have been invited to attend include members of the congressional and senatorial delegations of New York, New Jersey and Connecticut; Henrik Dullea, Cornell vice president for university relations; Porus Olpadwala, dean of Cornell's College of Architecture, Art and Planning; and representatives of national preservation organizations.

Members of the media who plan to attend the press conference or the VIP inspection may take the Circle Line ferry, which departs from Battery Park in lower Manhattan and from Liberty State Park in New Jersey at regular intervals. At Ellis Island, National Park Service personnel will escort visitors from the boat dock to the stabilization project on the island's south side.

For more general information on visiting Ellis Island, call the National Park Service at (212) 363-3200 or visit its web site, listed below. For more information on the project, contact: Linda Myers, Cornell News Service, (607) 255-9735 or (607) 255-4206.

Related World Wide Web sites: The following sites provide additional information on this news release. Some might not be part of the Cornell University community, and Cornell has no control over their content or availability.

National Park Service Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island page: http://www.nps.gov/stli