I have twice visited the abandoned Ellis Island hospital complex and the “Unframed” photography installation by French artist, JR. But first, let’s look at a some history of Ellis Island.

Ellis Island History

Ellis Island is a federally-owned island in New York Harbor that was the busiest immigrant inspection station in the United States.

Initially, much of the Upper New York Bay’s western shore consisted of large tidal flats with vast oyster beds. These were a major source of food for the Lenape Native American tribes. Ellis Island was one of three “Oyster Islands.” The other two were Liberty Island and Black Tom Island, which was destroyed. In the late 19th century, the federal government began expanding the island by land reclamation to accommodate its immigration station. The expansions continued until 1934. 

The land fill consisted of material excavated for the first line of the New York City Subway and from the ballast of ships. Also, it came from the rail yards of the Lehigh Valley Railroad and the Central Railroad of New Jersey.

From 1892 to 1924, approximately 12 million immigrants arriving at the Port of New York and New Jersey were processed at Ellis Island. Today, Ellis Island is part of the Statue of Liberty National Monument and is accessible to the public only by ferry. The north side of the island is the site of the main building, now a national museum of immigration. The south side of the island, including the Ellis Island Immigrant Hospital, is open to the public only through guided tours.

Ellis Island was the site of Fort Gibson in the 19th century. Later, it became a naval magazine. The first immigrant inspection station opened in 1892 and was destroyed by fire in 1897. Then, the second immigration station opened in 1900 and housed facilities for medical quarantines and processing immigrants. After 1924, Ellis Island was used primarily as a detention center for migrants. During both World War I and World War II, its facilities were also used by the US military to detain prisoners-of-war. After the immigration station’s closure, the buildings languished for several years until they were partially reopened in 1976. The main building and adjacent structures were completely renovated in 1990.

Abandoned Ellis Island Hospital Complex

Here is some background on the structures provided by Save Ellis Island, the nonprofit working to rehabilitated the Ellis Island buildings no longer in use. “Abandoned, decayed, hidden in plain sight, the hospital lies just beyond the urban landscape of New York City and the metropolitan area.  Built during the height of immigration between 1910 and 1924, this massive complex of twenty-nine buildings, including staff residences and a mortuary was state of the art. This is where 1.2 million immigrants were treated for infectious diseases prior to gaining admittance to America until the hospital was shuttered in 1954.”

“Unframed – Ellis Island” by JR

In August 2014, Save Ellis Island invited French artist JR to work within the Immigrant Hospital on the south side of the island. The installation, “Unframed – Ellis Island” within the abandoned complex brings landmark buildings, patients who convalesced there, and the doctors and nurses to grainy life through nearly two dozen archival photographs that have been printed life size and applied with yeast paste to the structures. 

JR has said, “The idea is to respect the architecture. I let the walls decide what part of the image should appear.”

I hope you enjoy these images. Click any photo to see them larger.

If you enjoy this post, try this one about NYC’s new Daniel Moynihan train hall.

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