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Ellis Island Is Opening an Abandoned Hospital to the Public for the First Time in 60 Years

There are 29 abandoned buildings in all, several of which visitors can explore

A corridor leading to the infectious disease ward at Ellis Island's defunct hospital. (Photo: SHANNON STAPLETON/Reuters/Corbis)
smithsonian.com

Ellis Island in New York City's harbor draws some three million tourists per year, but until now, none of them have been allowed to visit the island's south side. For 60 years, a 29-building complex there, which includes a hospital where many immigrants were detained, have slowly fallen into disrepair. Now, for the first time, tours of some of those abandoned buildings are being offered to the public. 

Tickets for the 10-person hardhat tours are selling out fast. Almost all of 2014 is already fully booked, though plenty of spots are open for the spring. As The New York Times reports, the tours are part of a collaboration with the French artist JR, who evokes the lives of the people who visited the island a century ago through an installation of eerie photographs overlaid on windows and walls in the abandoned buildings. The Times elaborates on the history of the buildings, and what visitors can expect to see: 

The hospital treated measles and scarlet fever, along with rarer diseases, and even employed female doctors in the early 1900s. About 1.2 million people — around 10 percent of Ellis Island arrivals — passed through its doors. Some 350 babies were born there, and 3,500 people died, before the immigrant hospital was gradually shuttered by the 1930s.

The space was later used by the Coast Guard and as a military detention center, but in 1954, the 29 hospital buildings were abandoned as they stood — with furniture, medical equipment and other artifacts intact. Today, some rooms look like beautiful industrial-age ruins, littered with leaves and shattered glass, and others somehow remain pristine, with even decades-old light bulbs still hanging.

New York seems to have caught on to the great potential for turning forgotten corners of the city into destinations, the Times points out. Past projects included Governor's Island and the High Line. Now, there's talk underway to convert North Brother Island—an off-limits, 20-acre spot of land in the East River, where Typhoid Mary lived out her final years—into a park, too.  

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