Last occupied by the U.S. Coast Guard, Ellis Island’s Immigrant Hospital has been largely abandoned since 1954. A complex of 29 buildings, the facility operated between 1902 and 1930. Amazingly, out of the 12 million immigrants that passed through Ellis Island, about 1.2 million spent time in the hospital. Nine out of every ten eventually recovered and were granted entry to the United States. The rest, however, were sent back home. Sadly, around 3,500 migrants died there, but the hospital’s maternity ward delivered 350 newborns.
In August 2014, Save Ellis Island (saveellisisland.org), a non-profit committed to restoring the hospital, opened select buildings to the public for the first time in 60 years. You can take their new “Hard Hat Tour” and see for yourself. To celebrate, the group invited French artist JR to contribute an installation. Skilled at working with large-scale portraiture, he left behind something utterly affecting.
After choosing 22 images taken in and around the hospital, he blew them up and pasted them in various buildings. As to where he decided to place them, he explained to the New York Times in October 2014:
The idea is to respect the architecture. I let the walls decide what part of the image should appear.
And he described his experience like this:
You go from room to room and the energy would change. I would almost feel human energy in these empty rooms.
Because he was arranging the photos where they might have been snapped in the first place, it’s no wonder JR could feel the “human energy.”
Janis Calella, President of Save Ellis Island, told the Times that looking at his century-old tableaus was actually like traveling in time:
You stand there and you’re in the present, and they’re in the past, and you’re there together.
But what will become of the installation? Well, according to Ms. Calella, everything will “remain up until it decides to disappear.” JR, however, revealed concern. He worried that one day a lost spirit still wandering the hospital would be startled to see his or her dissolving figure there:
It is a perfect situation for a stuck soul.
Photos by Rick Stachura. March 28, 2015.
Ellis Island Immigrant Hospital. Ellis Island, New Jersey.
(1, 2, 3, 5, 6) Contagious Disease Hospital Group, Island #3.
(4) Laundry Building, Island #2.
(Portions of the story were originally posted to my old Tumblr site on April 23, 2015.)