After a 7-year renovation, the historic immigration facility in New York Harbor will reopen as a museum
NEW YORK — ELEANOR LENHART was only 7 when she arrived here at Ellis Island with her parents from England in 1921, but she remembers it vividly. Her father was a printer in search of a better economic future. To save money, the family booked steerage passage. When they reached New York Harbor, they were moved to a cattle barge for the trip to Ellis Island. Mrs. Lenhart recalls the ``awful stench'' and cramped quarters - ``I couldn't turn around.''
Once in the main building of Ellis Island they climbed stairs to the Great Hall, where they sat on wooden benches with thousands of other foreigners. Her family watched as newfound friends, a British colonel and his family and a well-educated Armenian woman who had recently lost her family and home in a fire, were questioned by several inspectors at desks at one end of the room and ushered out a back door.
When her family's turn for questioning came, they were told to exit by a different door. They protested that they wanted to follow their friends. ``Oh, they're going back - you can enter the United States,'' they were told.
Standing in that same vast, and now largely empty, room with its high vaulted ceilings, the visitor of 1990 can try to recapture some of those same feelings of uncertainty, hope, and determination that are so much a part of the American immigrant experience.
The Ellis Island Immigration Museum, which opens to the public Sept. 10, the day after President Bush is scheduled to attend the opening ceremony, is a ``people'' museum. Its story is the collective experience of all 17 million foreigners who passed through its doors trying to escape persecution back home or find a better economic life here.
Irving Berlin, Justice Felix Frankfurter, Bob Hope, and the parents of the governors of California, Massachusetts, New York, and New Jersey all came through Ellis Island. Indeed, a full 40 percent of the American population can trace its roots to family members who arrived at Ellis Island between 1892 and 1954. Though not the only port of entry, it received 75 percent of all immigrants entering the US in those years. Most were European. Contrary to popular myth, only about 2 percent were sent back. An average of 5,000 immigrants a day were admitted, but the numbers tapered off in the late 1920s after immigration quotas became stricter. More of the processing then took place before emigr'es left home. The island was used mostly for those needing medical attention or whose papers were not in proper order. In the end it became a deportation center for illegal aliens.
The huge, 220,000-square-foot main building - one of some 33 structures on the island, but the only one restored - looks like a majestic waterfront palace. Built in 1900 in the French Renaissance style, the three-story building has four copper-domed towers, freshly sandblasted brick and limestone walls, and a red metal and glass canopy over the entrance.
The restoration is the most extensive involving any single building in the US. The $156 million, seven-year project was paid for by individual and corporate donors to the Statue of Liberty-Ellis Island Foundation. Foundation President Stephen Briganti, who recently took a group of visitors on an advance tour of the museum, says the average contribution was $25.
Some efforts, like that of the Telephone Pioneers of America, which held three annual bake sales across the country, raised hundreds of thousands of dollars. Many schoolchildren contributed pennies. More than 215,000 Americans gave $100 each so that the name of one of the family's earliest arriving members could be inscribed on copper-plated panels lining the island's eastern sea wall.
The alphabetized list of names is not limited to Ellis Island arrivals. It includes George Washington's great grandfather, Paul Revere's father, and Captain Miles Standish.
However, most names in this American Immigrant Wall of Honor are those of ordinary Americans. The response has been so large that a second wall will go up in 1992. ``It started pure and simple as a fund-raising tool, but it has become one of the most important parts of the museum,'' Mr. Briganti says.
Families of American immigrants have also sent 3,000 artifacts to the museum. Eleanor Lenhart sent in her family's passport. A pair of weathered, high-cut brown shoes worn by a Swedish woman who came to Ellis Island in 1924 is accompanied by a letter from her daughter: ``Most dear to me are the shoes my mother wore when she set foot on the soil of America. You must see them to appreciate the courage my parents had and the sacrifices they made.''
It is that quality of courage that deeply impresses visitors. Briganti, whose mother and three grandparents came through Ellis Island from Italy, explains it this way: ``To me, the whole importance of this island is that somewhere in central Russia or Italy or the Middle East ... poor people made a conscious decision to change their lives. They didn't really know where they were going. Often they didn't speak English and weren't even literate in their own language. But they were going.''
Louise Nagy emigrated from Poland with four brothers and sisters and an uncle in 1913 to rejoin her parents, who had come over earlier. She recalls that she and the other children had no passports and that their uncle paid someone to smuggle them across the Polish-German border after midnight. In Hamburg they managed to book steering class passage on a ship bound for the US. She says it was a ``horrible'' 10-day trip. Though her parents were waiting at Ellis Island, a mix-up in the last nameforced an overnight stay on narrow bunk beds in one of the main building's 14 dormitory rooms until the difficulty was cleared up.
Patricia and John Milano of Northport, N.Y., say they did not really appreciate the pluck it took for her mother (who came through Ellis Island from Ireland) or his father (who came from Italy) to emigrate to the US until they visited their birthplaces in recent years and realized how remote they were. The Milanos have put both names on the wall of honor as a tribute to their parents' courage and the ``good lives they gave us,'' says Mrs. Milano. ``We wanted our children's children to be able to see that.''
The Ellis Island museum, which will be run by the National Park Service, is reachable by the Circle Line Ferry from lower Manhattan or New Jersey. Visitors will enter the first-floor baggage room and climb a stairway to the main hall.
Most of the museum's several exhibits are located in wings off the main hall.
Original furnishings are used as much as possible. The benches and chandeliers in the main Registry Room and the table and chairs in the hearing room for immigrant appeals are original. The Park Service's insistence on authenticity is in part responsible for the sparse supply of furniture. ``Photography was our greatest resource, but very few places in the building were documented to the extent that we felt comfortable enough to furnish them,'' says Gary Ross, the museum's project manager.
A Gallup poll released just this week indicates that more than two-thirds of all Americans feel that the country has been improved by the talents and cultures of its immigrants. Though they no longer come in through Ellis Island, legal immigrants still flow into the US at a rate of about 600,000 a year. ``It's a universal story,'' says foundation spokeswoman Peg Zitco. ``The museum will serve not only as a history lesson. It's also going to help many people understand a little better what's happening today.''