Ellis Island: JR’s ‘Unframed’


Welcome back to National Parks & other public lands with T! Here in the New York/New Jersey area, we are sheltering in place to slow the spread of the Covid-19 pandemic. I hope that you are all well and taking steps to protect yourself and others from this disease. It seemed apropos to bring you these images from the USA’s first public health installation, from which many of our modern day procedures for dealing with infectious diseases were developed.


A significant number of Americans today (40-50%) can trace their ancestry to immigrants who first set foot in the USA on Ellis Island. Twelve million people were processed through Ellis Island in its 60 year history. All had to pass a brief medical and psychological screening before proceeding into NYC or New Jersey.


Those who showed signs of an ailment were marked with chalk at the Main Arrivals Building and were detained in the island’s hospital for further evaluation. The hospital complex sat on land created from excavation of the NYC subway tunnels. The General Hospital was just across the ferry basin from the arrivals building while the Contagious Disease Hospital was furthest away and separated by another body of water to prevent the spread of disease.


I was recently invited on an extended tour of the hospital complex as part of a focus group for Save Ellis Island. Save Ellis Island is the non-profit fundraising group seeking to restore or arrest the decay of Ellis Island’s south side. They receive no federal money and depend on the income from the tours they conduct to fund the preservation.

Czech grandmother

The hospital complex was deemed part of the State of New Jersey by the courts in 1998 and therefore receives little of the proceeds from the visitor center concessions which are on the New York side of the island. Save Ellis Island began conducting the ‘hard hat’ tours in 2014.

The people in this photo are taking a psychological evaluation

Part of our tour was photographing and hearing the details of the many art installations by French artist JR. JR collaborated with Save Ellis Island to transfer actual photos from the archives, enlarged, onto the walls, windows and doors of the hospital complex. They help bring the buildings to life and tell the stories of some who passed this way. Please scroll to the end of this post for a brief WSJ interview with JR about the work he did on Ellis Island.

Young Swedish girl

Ellis Island Posts:

Location: Jersey City & New York City

Designation: National Monument

Date designated or established: 5/11/1965

Date of my visit: 2/29/202020200229_103241

JR’s Ellis Island courtesy of The Wall Street Journal on You Tube

27 thoughts on “Ellis Island: JR’s ‘Unframed’

  1. I’ve always found Ellis Island to be a fascinating and moving place to visit. Thanks for showing a side of the island most of us don’t have access to. Hope they’re successful in getting further restoration done.

    1. Thanks for commenting! To restore would probably be out of reach, so I think they are aiming for arrested decay for most of the property…buildings stabilized and made safe enough for tourists with protective head gear

  2. When I visited NYC for one night in 2016 (the only time I’ve been so far save being stuck overnight at JFK two years ago which I don’t recommend), there were only two places I insisted we visit. The 9-11 Memorial and Ellis Island. To say that warm Sunday at the very start of September was the most moving of days is a pathetic understatement. Ellis Island is a superb and informative museum. All the souls that travelled through, all the souls that didn’t make it. There is America – the land where dreams would be made for so many and dashed for others. I did not know the State of New Jersey is responsible for this magnificent (and should be unmissable) living monument but I will urge people all the more strongly to visit now that I understand the implications of financial burden to one state. I loved this article. Thank you 💫

    1. I hope they manage to raise the needed funds. My immigrant ancestors all came here before Ellis Island opened, so I don’t have a personal connection, but so many people do, it should be preserved.

      1. Most of us have a connection to the story of immigration, if not the specific place. I hope they can save the hospitals…open to the wind and sea it’s a daunting challenge

    2. Thanks so much 😊 NJ is responsible for the hospital side of the island. The arrivals building which houses the national museum of immigration is on Nyc’s land and is administered by the National park service…access to federal and other funds so that building is beautifully restored and the exhibits well done.

  3. My Grandmother came through Ellis Island. I hope to visit there one day, and this article made me want to visit even more. Thanks for this post.

  4. This is fascinating, such an important place in the social history of the USA. And the art installations are superb. Such a shame that it’s all in such a poor state of repair; let’s hope the Group can raise enough money to save the place for future generations.

    The parallels between procedures at Ellis Island and the screening currently happening at airports across the world to prevent the spread of Covid-19 are plain, and a bit eerie.

    1. Thanks 😊. Yes, the salt air is already eroding some of the photo transfers, so they have their work cut out for them saving this place. I shudder to think what it will be like flying out of one of our airports anytime soon.

  5. I have seen this island from the Jersey shoreline. I had never had enough time to visit the island itself, but I hope to make enough time to do so. Being a railroad person, I am amazed that for many people, this was their first ride on a train in this new land. Although the trains are long gone, the old train station remains. Maybe they could bring back a few passenger trains to make it feel more like the days when people passed here to live in a new world.

  6. Very well done. I liked both the photos of people and the cause. My favorite was the Czech grandmother. Seems there should be federal help on this. It is obviously a National treasure. Thanks for sharing. –Curt

    1. Thanks Curt! The federal funding supports the nps managed, north side of the island, with the fully restored arrivals building. The NPS has a huge backlog of funding for repairs and maintenance needs across the country which is why you will often see parks associated with a nonprofit friends group.

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