Have you ever been to Ellis Island? It’s New York’s most popular attraction (two million people visit each year, yikes!) so chances are you have. But did you know it’s also home to an incredible sight most people don’t know is there? I’m talking about the abandoned Ellis Island hospital, a long-forgotten, 22-building complex, used to screen sick immigrants before they were officially allowed into the USA. Ever since I read this amazing book about French artist JR’s historical art installation inside the complex, a visit has been high up on my list, so last time I was stateside I signed up for a ‘hard hat tour’. Since I had such a mind-blowing time, today I’m excited to share some photos, if you’d like to see…
Off we go in our hard hats…
On a tour you get to walk around 22 of 29 buildings in the complex, through covered corridors that link the various wards and rooms. It’s amazing to spot JR’s enchanting larger-than-lifesize archival photos of all the people who passed through and worked at the hospital hidden in the different rooms. I love how they make us more curious and bring the story of the hospital to life.
We start off in the laundry which is full of giant, industrial-sized machinery. When the 750-bed hospital was at its busiest during the 1920s, the laundry room was open 24/7, operated by the biggest, burliest men, who had to wash, rinse, spin and dry 3000 pieces of linen and towels each day. The mind boggles… most of the equipment used then still remains in this room today.
↓ Outside in the courtyard, there’s a prison-like building which was once the psychiatric ward and patients staying in here were marked with an ‘X’. Some just needed time to recover after spending three weeks travelling below deck to the US; others however, never showed signs of recovery and were deported.
↓ Next to it is what was once a maternity ward-turned interment camp for an estimated 8,000 German,Italian and Japanese Americans during World War Two, hence the cage. Pregnant women weren’t officially allowed to make the journey to the US, so there were actually only 355 babies born at the hospital during the whole time it was open, most named after the nurses and doctors that delivered them.
Back inside on the other side of the complex, we peek inside lots of tiny little time-worn rooms lining long crumbling corridors creeping with ivy – from the administration department to the TB testing room.
We discover the kitchen which is huge! Just like in the laundry, keeping things going in here to prepare breakfast, lunch and dinner for around 1000 staff and patients each day was a 24/7 operation. Can you spot one of JR’s photographs underneath the giant cooker hood which makes it look like an upturned ship?
Then there’s a huge multi-bed ward at the end of yet another endlessly long dank corridor. Two to three nurses would work each shift in here dealing with paperwork and tending to 14 patients at a time – seven on each side of the room. Six huge windows on each side let in lots of light, while the main heat source came from six radiators, one underneath each window.
Last, we head into the doctor’s quarters, a proper home on the hospital site where the head doctor and his family lived. Compared with the rest of the place it’s a grand affair, with several bedrooms, a modern kitchen and a spacious lounge filled with features like ornate doorways and fireplaces – and some of the most breathtaking views across to Manhattan which we ponder, along with everything else we’ve discovered, before slowly making our way back to the start.
Artist JR also recently directed a short film about the history of the Ellis Island and its immigrants, called Ellis, narrated by Robert De Niro. Here’s the trailer: