Lazaretto Lazaretto
Source: Common Ground (NPS)
Date: Spring 2006
Byline: unsigned

In the Name of Lazarus

The Lazaretto, an Italian word deriving from Lazarus, the patron saint of lepers, is the oldest structure of its kind in the United States and the only one still standing, a rare artifact of the history of public health policy.

The building was 10 miles downriver from the city, far enough to be considered safe. it replaced an older facility — a "pest house," in the vernacular of the time-that was too close for comfort.

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HABS architectural historians Jamie Jacobs and Catherine LaVoie documenting the quarantine station.

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The cupola offered a vantage point to see ships with immigrants approaching.

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Water damage inside.

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The doors to an outbuilding.

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A decorative touch at the entrance.

Documenting the artifact of an early epidemic.

It was unusually hot and dry in Philadelphia the summer of 1793. Creeks and rivers were low, and mosquitoes bred in great numbers. The docks were also crowded with refugees from political turmoil in the Caribbean, and some had Yellow Fever. The disease, spread liberally by the mosquitoes, became an epidemic in no time, its symptoms horrific. Philadelphia emptied out as the death toll rose. Accounts of the period read like apocalyptic science fiction.

This summer, a team from the Historic American Buildings Survey, National Park Service, arrived at a rambling brick structure on the Delaware River. Their objective was to document the 200-year-old quarantine facility that was the direct result of Philadelphia's traumatic experience. The Lazaretto, an Italian word deriving from Lazarus, the patron saint of lepers, is the oldest structure of its kind in the United States and the only one still standing, a rare artifact of the history of public health policy.

Built in 1799, it was the first stop for immigrants coming to Philadelphia. The Lazaretto operated for over 90 years, and today is considered one of Pennsylvania's most significant, and endangered, historic sites. "This was a physical representation of the new health law," says Jamie Jacobs, a HABS architectural historian. "Every ship that came up the Delaware had to stop there. There was not an Ellis Island, there was no real immigration service at the time." Unused and in a state of limbo for years, the site was to become a parking lot but last August it was purchased by Tinicum Township for $3.1 million, and rescued from demolition.

The building was listed in the National Register of Historic Places in 1972. The HABS team, consisting of a photographer and a pair of architectural historians, is creating a record that would aid its candidacy as a national historic landmark. In any event, the research and documentation will become part of a thorough permanent record that did not exist before. The project was conducted as part of a HABS endangered buildings program. The Northeast Region of the National Park Service, whose jurisdiction includes Pennsylvania, lent its support.

The epidemic of 1793 did not end until November brought cold weather and an end to the mosquitoes. Shortly thereafter, Philadelphia formed the nation's very first board of health, taking the lead in establishing a system to control infectious diseases. There was no federal role in maintaining health standards, considered the responsibility of state and local government. American cities of the time had neither the means nor the knowledge to maintain proper sanitation, so the only defense was quarantine. At about this time, municipalities created some of the first sanitation regulations, an attempt at behavior modification intended to change the public's approach to hygiene. Quarantine on a large scale was seen only in the bigger port cities like Philadelphia, Boston, and New York, where human traffic and the potential for disease were high.

The Lazaretto was built on a marshy island. From a cupola at the top of the 30-room Georgian structure, a lookout could see ships as they came up the Delaware River. The lookout rang a bell to alert the physician and the quarantine master, who boarded arriving vessels to examine passengers for disease. The sick were offloaded and stayed until they recuperated or, in some cases, died. Potentially contaminated cargo was offloaded too.

The building was 10 miles downriver from the city, far enough to be considered safe. it replaced an older facility — a "pest house" in the vernacular of the time — that was too close for comfort. According to Jacobs, the building's design borrowed from trends in hospital design in England. The style of public institutional buildings followed what he calls a "domestic typology." In his report on the Lazaretto, he quotes The Hospital: A Social and Architectural History: "Noble and bourgeois donors built for the sick poor in forms familiar to themselves that were so closely derived from palaces or country houses, it is hard to distinguish a hospital from a gentleman's home."

The central feature is the entrance and administrative section, "a Georgian house on steroids," HABS architectural historian Catherine LaVoie calls it. On either side are identical wings, one for women and one for men, each with a long veranda that served as a common space. A number of outbuildings have long since vanished, but there remain a kitchen, a bargeman's house, a physician's house, and a pair of sheds.

It wasn't until the end of the 19th century that the Federal Government got involved in health issues, brought about by the massive influx of immigrants. More than 90 years after the Lazaretto opened its doors, the first permanent federal immigration and quarantine station opened at Ellis Island. The Lazaretto closed in 1895, when a new federal facility opened a few miles downriver in Marcus Hook, designed for handling immigrants on a large scale. During WWI, the building's location on the Delaware made it an ideal base for seaplanes, and equipment from this era remains at the site.

Acquiring the Lazaretro took an initiative by the county, which found support in the state legislature for a grant to help purchase the property. Tinicum County plans to build a new firehouse and evacuation center nearby, a move that gives some preservationists cause for concern, since it is not just the building itself that is considered important, but the entire 10 acres associated with it. It is assumed that many immigrants did not leave the Lazaretto alive. Where they were buried seems to be an open question, but the answer may come to the fore when the firehouse construction starts. The Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission has approved a $50,000 survey of the site.

Plans for the building's preservation are on hold, but the HABS documentation could be used as blueprints for a rehabilitation. However, the first order of business is a study of what's possible. Suggestions range from a simple public historic site to a living history museum with costumed role players, interactive displays, and genealogical resources. The township is making sure the structure is stable and watertight while plans are developed.

For more information, contact Bill Bolger, manager of the NPS Northeast Region's national historic landmarks program, bill-bolger@nps.gov or Jamie Jacobs, james-jacobs@nps.gov.