Lazaretto Lazaretto
Source: Delaware County Times
Date: July 18, 2001
Byline: Kathleen E. Carey

Restoration eyed for historic site

TINICUM — Two hundred years ago, sailors would be brought to the shores of Essington to a place called the Lazaretto in hopes of containing diseases such as yellow fever and smallpox. Many would be quarantined in the brick Georgian building. Some saw their last days there. After several rebirths, local and county officials are hoping to retain the structure, which Preservation Pennsylvania has listed as among the top ten threatened in the state. The site was purchased by Island Marine Partners last year, who have courted plans of demolishing the quarantine headquarters to pave way for an 889-car parking lot or a hotel-restaurant.

Although development plans are in hiatus, preservation advocates are pleased by the state's designation despite some real obstacles to saving the Lazaretto.

"It's great," said Tinicum Commissioner Thomas Giancristoforo. "It's great assistance to us. We've also applied on the national end. Being on the Pennsylvania list is great but being on the national list is phenomenal."

Giancristoforo, an active member of the "Save the Lazaretto" committee, has been at the forefront of the township's fight to keep the wrecking ball from the old sailors' haunt.

He said a feasibility study in conjunction with the Philadelphia Port Authority is being completed on the site. Giancristoforo said it has great potential for a museum, bed and breakfast inn, an upper-scale restaurant or townhouses.

Perhaps like its namesake — the Biblical Lazarus who rose from the dead with divine assistance — this building will have new life. "It is just an amazing place," Delaware County Senior Preservation Planner Kathleen Wandersee said. "You can see it from a distance. It needs cosmetic help but it's structurally sound. So much is still intact inside."

At the end of the 18th century, Philadelphia officials realized they needed a quarantine station to evaluate members of ships visiting the city. Disease was believed to be brought by the ships from foreign ports.

Officials bought 10 acres on Tinicum Island from Thomas and Rebecca Smith in 1799 for $2,000. A year later, the three-story structure, modeled after Pennsylvania Hospital, was finished. Eventually, a hospital and morgue was built on the site. In 1893, the quarantine station moved to Marcus Hook.

The Lazaretto then became a resort for the wealthy and politically-connected of Philadelphia. Known as the Orchard Club, it sported arbors and tennis courts.

In 1915, the Lazaretto underwent another transformation, becoming the Philadelphia Seaplane Base, which it maintained with few exceptions during the wars until last year when Bob Mills sold the property.

Because of its rich past, many want to keep the Lazaretto intact. "To me," Wandersee said, "it's the most significant building in Delaware County."

Giancristoforo said about $400,000 has been set aside in the state budget to preserve the structure, which the owner has offered to the township for $3.1 million.

"We definitely do not desire a riverfront nightclub," the commissioner said. "The main goal is to preserve that building. If you go into (the Lazaretto), you get a very eerie feeling."

He said the current owners have begun to be somewhat receptive to the idea of preserving the Lazaretto.

"I think that someday we can come to a conclusion to save the building," Giancristoforo said. "We just hope someday that we can see the light at the end of the tunnel and we can save this thing."