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One of New York City’s most haunting ruins has direct views of the Statue of Liberty and the Manhattan skyline, but has been strictly off-limits for 60 years. Now the Ellis Island hospital, which treated 1.2 million immigrant patients between 1901 and its abandonment in 1954, is once again open to the public. In conjunction with the reopening, the French street artist JR has installed paste-ups of archival photographs throughout the building that give a historic, human context to the decrepit space.
JR’s Unframed — Ellis Island went on view when public tours hosted by Save Ellis Island began in October. Children with their heads wrapped due to a fungal scalp disease gaze translucently from a shattered window; the shadowed figures of German psychiatrists parade up a worn staircase. A family positioned in a window of the doctor’s house stares at the Statue of Liberty, recreating the longing pose of the original photograph. From the caged porch of the psychopathic ward, a group of men masked by the bars watches (although these detainees were photographed later, when the hospital was being used by the military). Many of the photographs JR used in his over 16 installations on the island are among the best known from Ellis Island’s archives, but seeing them applied to the actual walls that housed so many who were trying to enter the United States amplifies their power. The hospital served immigrants entering Ellis Island who were sick, mentally ill, or pregnant, and although 3,500 people died here over the years, the vast majority were well cared for before continuing their journeys.
Visits to Ellis Island have long been confined to the main building, which was also once abandoned before reopening, renovated, as a museum in 1990. The tour from Save Ellis Island is surprisingly in-depth, as you get to walk the long hallways lined with fallen leaves, view many of the wards with their rounded corners thought to prevent disease, and even see the autopsy theater, where a built-in morgue stands open before the concrete bleachers. The 29 buildings of the hospital on the island’s south side are almost completely connected by covered passageways, and with the rain a constant presence during my visit and a gloomy fog rising over the harbor outside, it was easy to imagine steamships cruising by with their weary passengers.
JR has worked on these large-scale portraiture installations all over the world, whether covering the dividing wall between Israel and Palestine with faces from either side, or the Inside Out project, for which the faces of people living in buildings from Brazil to Haiti are applied to the structures’ exteriors. Unframed — Ellis Island, perhaps his quietest work yet, will continue until it rots away completely. While it remains, it resurrects some of the people whose echoed presence gives the old hospital a compelling meaning beyond its beautiful decay.