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June 13, 1986 - Image 26

Resource type:
Text
Publication:
The Detroit Jewish News, 1986-06-13

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26 Friday, June 13, 1986

THE DETROIT JEWISH NEWS

*LIBERTY'S

PROMISE*

The Fate
of Ellis Island

A conference center, an ethnic Williamsburg
or a fence splitting the island in two? Those
are the options for the Golden Door.

ARTHUR J. MAGIDA

Special to The Jewish News

. hirty-two years after it
was closed to new
immigrants, the future
of Ellis Island is still
undecided, the debate
over its future is bitter
and the public, caught between battling
egos and conflicting plans, is confused.
At stake is not only the integrity of the
island that was the Gateway to America,
but also the prestige of the two leading
actors in the controversy —. Interior
Secretary Donald Hodel and auto whiz
Lee Iacocca.
Attention was drawn to Ellis Island
in February when Hodel fired Iacocca
as head of an advisory commission
on the restoration of Ellis Island. .
Hodel cited a "potential conflict of
interest" because Iacocca also chaired
the foundation that was raising
money to restore the Statue of Liberty
and Ellis Island. Iacocca insisted that
Hodel was sore that he was backing a
rival plan for the island. .
But frequently lost amid the name-
calling was the fact that Hodel and
Iacocca agreed on blueprints for the
island's northern end. Their dispute
centered on the island's southern 17
acres. To many people, this is the less
historic — and less sacrosanct —
section of Ellis Island. Now the site
of an abandoned hospital and more
than 20 crumbling contagious disease
wards, a small proportion of
immigrants who passed through Ellis
Island never stepped foot on this part
of the property.
On the island's northern six acres
are the Main Building, with its

cathe-dral-like Great Hall. Also in the
Main Building are the Baggage Rooms,
the Registry Room, and the two
dozen or so Inquiry Rooms where
physicians and psychologists
examined newcomers.
By 1992, about $140 million will
have been spent to restore these
northern buildings-and install a
museum of immigration. - These funds
have come from the Statue of Liberty-
Ellis Island Foundation, which is
authorized by the Interior Department
to restore the Statue and only Ellis
Island's northern end.
The 50 proposals that have been
made for'Ellis Island since 1954 range
from the frivolous to the earnestly •
pragmatic: A . hospital for chronic
alcoholics, a re-creation of colonial-
era lower Manhattan, a Biblical center,
a "romantic ruin," a sports camp for
the handicapped.
Serious proposals for the southern
end of the island have now been
whittled down to handful. A decision
on which will prevail is not expected
until December.
For several years, the Interior
Department has backed a plan for a
international conference center on the
island. In 1983, for example, James
Watt, then Secretary of the Interior,
designated the plan the winner : of a
competition among developers for
Ellis Island.
But as a staff counsel on the House
of Representatives Interior Committee
said, "Iacocca has been stonewalling
the conference center plan since he
found Out about it."

The Great Hall

Hospital and
Quarantine Area

Interior Department is leaning toward high-priced conference center
for southern end of Ellis Island (shaded area above.)

Drawing courtesy of Center for Housing Partnerships.

Iacocca has charged that the plan
would "commercialize" Ellis Island
and offer "tax shelters to the rich."
He has backed a plan for mounting
exhibitions on the history of
immigration and selling ethnic foods
and crafts. Critfcs, in turn, have
slammed Iacocca's idea as "arrethnic
Williamsburg" and "Iacoccaland."
Originally, Iacocca's proposal, .
,designed by architect John Burgee,
would have razed most of the existing
buildings and erected a contemporary
structure with a 90-foot high glass
dome. The current plan would retain
all of the historic buildings, as would

the proposal for the conference
center.
Most critics have rallied to the idea
of a conference center on Ellis Island.
Architectural Record called the plan a
"fine concept," the New York Daily
News tagged it "a magnet for
visitors," and the late New YOrk
Senator Jacob Javits claimed it was
"the best use of a special island."
But the dutifully middle-Of-the-road
New York Times has knocked both
proposals. In a recent' editorial, the
Times called "ethnic Williamsburg"
as "tourist plastic" and the
conference center "perversely plush."

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