Ferry Building

The Ferry Building

The Ferry Building was the first building restored by Save Ellis Island.  An Art Deco WPA (Works Progress Administration) project built to replace the earlier wood structure that burned down, it was often called the happiest building in New York City because it was the point of departure for immigrants after they had been processed on the island. 

The 1936 Ferry Building was designed by Charles Delano of Delano and Aldrich and built, at the time, at a cost of $133,000. The cost to restore the Ferry Building was $6.4 million. It was reopened in 2007 for guided tours and education programs hosted by Save Ellis Island. 

Ferry Building EagleThe building is topped with a copper cupola trimmed with bronze eagles. It stands at the base of the U-shaped Island, and is connected to the 1913-1914 main Registry Building on the north side, and with the 29 hospital buildings on the south side, via a corridor that runs behind it. These corridors extend to all of the buildings on the island.

The long rectangular (24-x250-ft.) single-story Ferry Building consists of a three rooms: the central pavilion, with 30-ft. ceilings and enormous steel windows, served as a waiting room for immigrants, the north wing housed a lunch room and kitchen facilities, and the south wing occupied by the customs service. Gate houses flank the building on both ends

Exterior restoration began in 2000. This involved extensive masonry repairs, a new roof and the restoration of the steel windows and ornate lead-coated copper cupola. The interior work began in 2006 and included restoration of historic finishes and fixtures such as the decorative plaster cornice, terra-cotta wainscot, terrazzo flooring and a large bronze chandelier. In addition, new electrical, HVAC and fire protection systems were installed.

From the bottom of the building to the top it was a difficult job that presented many challenges - challenges were overcome by the resourcefulness of the Architects, Engineers and construction team that set out to restore a national icon. 

When restoration began, we found that the floor was stable but, there was a tidal space under it, so water would fill it when the tide came in. The underside of the floor was honeycombed, it had to be cleaned and reinforced.  The pipes had been wrapped in asbestos which had deteriorated over time.  It was a difficult and dirty job.

The concrete slabs that supported the roof were extremely thin; it was remarkable that the roof was still standing.  We had to come up with a quick repair. Metal decking was inserted under the existing concrete roof. This was held in place with steel angles bolted to the bearing wall.  Concrete was them pumped into that space, which created new concrete roofing without having to remove the existing roof.  

When restoring old buildings, things aren’t always what they seem to be. One of the biggest problems was keeping water out of the building.  After a new roof was put on, water was still leaking into the building.  We found that the wood sheathing under the cap of the cupola had deteriorated.  It had to be rebuilt to prevent water from entering the building.  The sheathing was replaced and the cap replicated but we were able to salvage the ornamental fluted band at the top of the cupola and stop the water from coming into the building.

Though this scope of work was primarily interior, to ensure a water tight structure the team decided the exterior of the building would be re-pointed. Extensive terra-cotta repair was also done to the exterior, over each window, including the large window in the central waiting room. It turned out that the main frames of the windows were integral to the building, so we repaired them, and replaced the deteriorated lintels with stainless steel. 

The next phase was adding the utilities to the corridor that stretches behind the Ferry Building, connecting it to the north and south sides of the island. This corridor is approximately 4,800 sq.ft. measuring 300 ft. long by 12 ft. wide. The mechanicals were put above the ceiling in the corridor, running from the Ferry Building to the south side and are sized to accommodate all the buildings on the south side, in preparation for their restoration. 

Inside the Ferry Building, plaster walls and ceilings were replaced in all of the rooms.  In the central waiting room, the tile portions of the room were repaired using historic tile taken from behind the four waiting room benches placed against the walls.  Two of the large wood benches were restored and two were replicated.  The beautiful terrazzo floors were in excellent condition, requiring only patching, cleaning and polishing.  All of the doors and metal casement windows were repaired or replaced.  

The central waiting room and the north room, the former lunch room, would soon house an exhibit on the south side hospital and the Ferry Building itself.  The restored room on the south end, the customs room, would be used for Save Ellis Island education programs. 

The work also included restoration of the bathrooms located off the corridor.  The design called for the mechanicals to be stored into a mezzanine in the bathroom area and hidden in a small utility room in the customs room to avoid putting equipment on the roof. 

Architects, engineers, craftsmen, contractors and historians worked on this project.  We took every step necessary to restore original elements of the building rather than replacing them. When you visit Ellis Island, look for the large fan over the door in the lunchroom. At the time of restoration the fan did not work.  One of the electricians took the fan home, cleaned it and repaired worn wires. The fan worked and was replaced over the door in the lunchroom. 

This was a difficult job, working in the middle of the Hudson River. It’s a harsh climate and all of the workers were screened by security every time they came onto the island. Every truck that entered the island was checked by the canine security units.  

The workmen on the project came from different ethnic backgrounds. Some of the craftsmen didn’t speak English and needed translators.  They were dedicated to the significance of the history of these buildings and the people who entered America through them. It reminds us that We Are Ellis Island and the United States is a nation of nations.  

The restoration of the south side hospitals involves a public private partnership between the National Park Service and Save Ellis Island, Inc.  Save Ellis Island serves as the National Park Service’s (NPS) designated fundraising and programmatic partner for twenty-nine historic Ellis Island buildings, the buildings of the Ellis Island Hospital, and the first and largest public health hospital in the United States.  Because the National Park Service is prohibited from fundraising (as a federal agency) it must rely upon its 501 (c)(3) fundraising partners to provide the funding to restore, preserve and maintain its parks.  Save Ellis Island is proud to be a partner of the National Park Service. 

Save Ellis Island thanks all those who participated in this project, for their dedication to a national treasure that was nearly lost.  

Einhorn Yaffee Prescott Architecture and Engineering P.C. of Albany, New York

Joseph A. Natoli Construction Corp. of Caldwell, New Jersey

Imperial Construction Group of Elizabeth, New Jersey

Schtiller & Plevy of Newark, New Jersey

Don Fiorino - National Park Service Architect and Project Supervisor

Save Ellis Island, Inc.  – Dedicated staff, board members and volunteers

It is with sincere gratitude that we thank the following for their dedication to historic preservation. Without their generous funding, this project would not have been possible.  

The National Park Service 

State of New Jersey    

Phillips Van Huesen Corp.

Traveler’s Conservation Foundation    

Hudson County Open Space


E. J. Grassman Trust

The Union Foundation

The Hyde and Watson Foundation

Pittsburgh Paints    


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rehab ferry door bench

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rehab Ferry Building waiting room