Ellis Island presents 21st-century visitors with two options: explore the island’s rich history in the main hall’s Ellis Island National Museum of Immigration or bear a hard hat and venture into its abandoned hospital. Few know that there exists a third still notable building. Standing behind the main hall, Ellis Island‘s abandoned Baggage and Dormitory Building is reminiscent of history.
Built in 1909 during the peak years of Ellis Island’s operation as an immigration station, the Baggage and Dormitory Building hosted the immigrants detained on the island. Immigrants were primarily detained for health reasons with everyone required to pass a health check for more than 60 diseases. While some immigrants were detained for hours, only taking brief refuge in the building’s tight quarters, others were detained for weeks.
Throughout the beginning of its operating years, records show that Ellis Island welcomed around 1,900 people daily. Despite Ellis Island’s immigration numbers decreasing throughout the coming decades, the need for the Baggage and Dormitory Building remained strong. In addition to acting as a detention facility for immigrants, the Baggage and Dormitory Building held citizens of Japanese, German, and Italian origin during World War II and residents without visas, seamen who deserted their ships, and stowaways on the island without bail during the Korean and Cold Wars.
Inside the Baggage and Dormitory Building, rooms were always full. Characterized by rows of triple-tiered bunk beds, wire-mesh mattresses, and thin blankets, the dormitory rooms could host up to 60 people. However, following complaints regarding the dormitory conditions, the building eventually adopted twin beds with real mattresses. Adding to the cramped ambiance of the dormitory, the rooms often held sinks and a bathroom in the same space as the beds.
After the Ellis Island federal immigrant processing station closed in 1954, the Baggage and Dormitory Building fell into disrepair along with Ellis Island’s more well-known structures — the hospital and main hall. Unlike the hospital and main hall, which now respectively receive attention on private tours or educational visits, the Baggage and Dormitory Building remains abandoned today.
The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act allowed for the stabilization of the building in 2010 and 2011. Though the National Park Service replaced the building’s roof and interior, it is not open to the public. Funds are still necessary to restore the historic building.
In its current condition, Ellis Island’s Baggage and Dormitory Building immortalizes the abandoned period of the island’s history. While many recognize the island’s eras as an immigration station and a museum, most forget that the island lay forgotten for decades.
Through his photography and newest installment of his video series, Unforgotten, Untapped New York’s Artist-in-Residence, Aaron Asis, highlights the importance of this forgotten, abandoned building. The Baggage and Dormitory Building is a reminder of the decay that occurred during a period of time during which some Americans may have not wanted to associate with their country due to current events surrounding politics, civil rights, and more. In its abandoned glory, the building acts as a memorial and monument to that era.
Untapped New York Insiders got an exclusive virtual screening of Unforgotten: Ellis Island. During the webinar, Insiders got a peek inside the last abandoned part of the Ellis Island National Museum of Immigration complex and listened to an interview with renowned installation artist JR, who reflected on the immigration station and his work at the abandoned hospital complex. They watched the film alongside its filmmaker, Aaron Asis and one of its interviewees, Stephen Lean Director of American Family Immigration History Center at the Statue of Liberty-Ellis Island Foundation. You can see a recording of this virtual event in our Insiders video archive, which has more than 150 on-demand videos. Get your first month o Insiders free with code JOINUS).
Unforgotten: Ellis Island Webinar
Next, check out 9 surprising uses of Ellis Island throughout history!