April 17: 11,747 at Ellis Island

2016/04/17 § Leave a comment

On this day in 1907 Ellis Island immigration center processed the largest number of people in a single day in its history.

America is oftentimes referred to as a nation of immigrants; Ellis Island must be its threshold.  But this small (originally less than four-acre) plot of land in Upper New York Bay was a latecomer in its position as main port of entry for newcomers.  Only in 1890 did Washington take control of immigration and make this site the first federal immigration station.  In the coming years an increasing wave of immigrants would all sweep through this place–over twelve million in the next six decades.  1907 was an auspicious year for the center, with the largest number of immigrants in one year (1,004,756), prompted by the threat of war in Europe.

The design for the Main Building was won in competition by the Beaux-Arts educated firm Boring & Tilton (recently restored in a significant eight-year project that concluded in 1990).  Their project was justly huge: a long, massive building, broken into smaller units to house a complex program skillfully organized according to the principles of the architects’ education: it works like a Roman thermae, an excellent model that already ensured the ease of circulation for thousands of people through a number of complex functions.  At Ellis Island’s Main Building, the plan comprises offices, baggage rooms, money changing stalls, dormitories for 600, dining and kitchen facilities, all ranged around the great interior hall, which measures 189 by 102.  Its high (60′) vault was rebuilt in 1907 by the famous Guastavino brothers, utilizing their efficient, thin, herringbone tiles.  From the ceramic vault through the brick and limestone structure, the building is fireproof throughout, but hardly an exercise in efficiency alone.  Designed by French-trained architects, it drew from the decorative stores of the French Renaissance vocabulary of decorative brickwork and sculptured limestone ornament.  Some critics maintained that the ornament is over-scaled; some critics suggest that was absolutely appropriate so that it would be legible from a distance (as in, on the water, approaching by boat); some critics like the symbolism of puffy and grandiose ornament dolling up what is, at essence, a terrifically efficient and straightforward building that is all about business–as America’s welcome mat.

Image: The Main Building, with new barrel vault constructed in 1907 to repair bomb damage (Germans suspected)


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You are currently reading April 17: 11,747 at Ellis Island at Clio’s Calendar: Daily Musings on Architectural History.


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