Ellis Island. For more than half of the immigrants entering the United States from 1892 to 1924, the immigrant detention center in New York Harbor was their first contact with US soil. Many of these weary travelers were grateful for the simple, hot meal they got as they stepped off the boats from Europe.
It may not be too long before modern visitors to the island can choose their meals - from crepes, souffles, and caviar to a Big Mac. And instead of the cot and a horse blanket the immigrants were offered, visitors may be able to stay in a luxury hotel.
The National Park Service (NPS) has announced that it will accept proposals for development of restaurants, shops, and hotels on the historic, 27-acre island, which sits in the shadow of the Statue of Liberty. David Moffitt, Park Service superintendent of the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island, is proceeding with plans to show the island to prospective developers in the next several weeks.
As restless and shifting as New York's landscape has been, Ellis Island has remained an anachronism.
Mass immigration to the island ended in 1924, when many immigrants began undergoing the bulk of the ''inspection'' procedures at their countries of origin - although the island still served as a deportation center and immigration station until 1954. After 1924, the island also was used as an auxilliary US Coast Guard station and, during World War II, as a detention center for enemy aliens. The island was opened to tourists in 1976. Its 33 buildings are in various stages of decay.
Even before President Reagan announced his budget cuts, the Park Service -- which administers the island - was able to do little more than conduct preventive maintenance. Citing potential safety hazards, the Park Service has opened only parts of three buildings to tourists. When the fiscal 1982 federal budget was unveiled, it became clear that the private sector would have to be enlisted for any serious restoration efforts. So last month, the Park Service announced it would accept proposals for the development.
Already, there has been a stream of applicants. While the NPS is keeping applicants' names confidential, spokesman George Berklacy says that ''large and distinguished firms'' are have expressed serious interest in opening shops and hotels on the island.
According to federal guidelines, developers may renovate and expand most of the existing structures, provided their architectural proposals blend aesthetically with those structures.
The Rouse Company, one of the nation's leading ''adaptative use'' developers, has evaluated the prospects of development on Ellis Island. Company spokesman Scott Ditch says that the island has ''exciting possibilities,'' quickly adding, however, that the company has as yet no definite plans to submit a proposal to the park service.
The prospect of developing the island has stirred controversy as well. Peter Sammartino, founder and past president of the Restore Ellis Island Committee, a group of private citizens devoted to preserving and restoring the island, says, ''The proposed use shows a lack of sensitivity for one of the most historic monuments of the nation. Let us remember that probably 85 percent of the people in America have some relevancy to Ellis Island.''
(While Dr. Sammartino's figure may be high, some immigration experts say that as many as half of today's Americans are descendants of immigrants who first touched US soil on Ellis Island.)
Moreover, Dr. Sammartino, former chancellor of Fairleigh Dickinson University in New Jersey, says it ''would cost too much to adapt the existing space (on the island) to any other use.''
Park Service officials admit the price tag for converting buildings will be high. One estimate foresees development costs in excess of $150 million. Still, NPS officials say they don't expect price to be a major stumbling block to development. They liken the expected development of Ellis Island with the metamorphosis that has taken place in Boston's Quincy Market area or the steadily progressing development of New York's South Street Seaport.
Phillip Lax, current president of the Restore Ellis Island Committee, takes a more flexible stance on development than does Dr. Sammartino. The committee has signed a ''letter of agreement'' with the Park Service to support the agency's development initiative. But Mr. Lax says that any new construction ''would have to be compatible'' with the historical character of the island to avoid the committee's opposition.
Another point of contention is the availability of ferry services - the only way to get to the island - to carry potential visitors. This doesn't seem to worry Park Service officials. They argue that if there is enough demand, someone will furnish adequate ferry service.