Lazaretto Lazaretto
Source: Delaware County Times
Date: October 10, 2005
Byline: Alex Rose

The Lazaretto: A historic relic is saved in Tinicum

TINICUM — The Lazaretto property is so old .. (All together now: "How old is it?") It's so old, it's possibly the longest standing structure of its kind not only in Delaware County, but in the entire U.S. Which is a terrible joke, but an enormously important statement, historically speaking. In the 1790s, a fledgling Philadelphia Board of Health commissioned the site to be built about a mile south of where the Philadelphia International Airport now lies (after one too many yellow fever epidemics emptied the city and wreaked havoc on the local economy). The land was purchased in 1799 and the Lazaretto was opened in 1800. Located on the Delaware River between the Lagoon Restaurant and Governor Prinze Park, it was originally used as a quarantine station to ensure diseased seamen and cargo did not reach the mainland.

"This was a physical representation of the new health law," said Jamie Jacobs, one of three National Park Service members documenting the site last week.

"Every ship that came up the Delaware had to stop there," said Jacobs. "There was not an Ellis Island, there was no real immigration service at the time, but (Lazaretto) did stand as a first-spot."

When constructed, the site consisted of a central administration building with adjoining male and female wings, each of its 30 rooms featuring a fireplace.

There were also separate stables for the physician and quarantine master, guard and boatman's houses on the waterfront, and, at one time, a second hospital site.

The quarantine station was shut down in 1870 following yet another yellow fever epidemic, and since then has enjoyed a variety of other incarnations as an Army Signal Corps training ground, yacht club, flight school, marina and seaplane outfit.

It most recently served as a marine repair shop — empty pegboard racks and repair certification letters still litter the walls of the central building.

A converted second-floor apartment also belies the height of 1965 ranch-style home fashioning, with enough shag carpeting and wood paneling to choke a squadron of malaria-infested mosquitoes.

'Extraordinary property'

Only the main building, guardhouse and physician's stable exist today. But even that is remarkable, according to historical experts — — to say nothing of their level of preservation.

"It's an extraordinary property," said Bill Bolger, program manager for the federal Natural Historic Landmarks Program in the northeast region.

"It's unusual to find a building of that age in such well-preserved condition. It's probably the only surviving immigration hospital of its time. ..We don't know of any other site that's near the age of this one."

Bolger has been keeping an eye on the site for the last five years or so, but because the building was privately owned, his program could not gain access to it.

That all changed in August.

Tinicum purchased the Lazaretto for $3.1 million from Island Marine Partners, L.L.C., which had owned the building since 2000.

Island Marine had proposed development at the site that would have meant the demolition of the property and the end of the Lazaretto legacy, but Tinicum was able to block those proposals.

The township is now looking at getting a grant from the county Planning Department for a feasibility study and development plan of the Lazaretto, impossible to do while it was still privately-owned.

A firehouse originally planned for a Second Street location is also slated for construction on the front four of the property's 10.2 acres, where the secondary hospital probably stood.

That station would combine the Essington and Lester fire companies, which Tinicum Township Manager Norbert Poloncarz said can no longer house new equipment.

Plans for the firehouse are 95 percent completed, said Poloncarz. The $7 million structure, paid for with matching state grants, should take two years to finish.

It is being designed to compliment the existing Georgian Lazaretto buildings, which were designed after Pennsylvania Hospital in Philadelphia, itself engineered along the lines of Independence Hall.

"Right now, we are preparing a contract for preservation of the (Lazaretto)," said Poloncarz. "If we get restoration funds it comes under the cognizance of the National Park Service," and the taxpayer shells out not a dime.

"We're interested in trying to get the landmark status for it," said Catherine Lavoie, another of the National Park Service team. "The big bucks come with the landmark status."

Lavoie said the team's compiled report will go to a board of historians and archaeologists who meet twice a year in Washington.

Waiting on the board

If the board thinks there is enough national historical significance at the site, said Lavoie, it will pass it up to U.S. Secretary of Interior Gale Norton, who ultimately signs off on it and frees up federal monies to rehabilitate the property.

Bolger said the focus then will be to get measured architectural drawings that precisely describe the buildings. These will be used for architects restructuring or refurbishing the property.

"It has an extremely important story to tell in terms of immigration," he said. "I think it's an extraordinary educational opportunity."

Bolger suggested the township form a council of stakeholders to open a dialogue and examine possibilities for future use of the Lazaretto. He has already offered his services, having been a member of much the same council during restoration of the Brandywine Battlefield.

"Really what it needs at this point is clear goals," he said, which will help secure funding. "It's kind of now at a newborn baby state, where it's been retrieved from the wrecking ball, and brought into public ownership."

The feasibility study will decide if a museum can be built and sustained, or if there can be some local government or business application for the main building, but until the study is completed, the Lazaretto will remain in mothballs and it's future uncertain.

"Whatever this recommendation will be, that's what we'll do," said Poloncarz. "I don't know what's going to happen, but I'm optimistic."