Lazaretto Lazaretto
Source: Delaware County Daily Times
Date: November 6, 2006
Byline: Editorial

Historic Lazaretto deserves to be saved

Delaware County is historic in many ways, not the least of which is the fact that Pennsylvania began here with the landing of William Penn on Chester's shore in 1682. But almost 40 years before that, the Swedes sailed up the Delaware River just north of Chester to Tinicum, making it the first European settlement in the state.

The Lenni Lenape Indians predated the Swedes, naming the community Tinicum, which means "by the water."

Many millennia before the Lenni Lenape arrived, Mother Nature made her mark in Tinicum by creating Pennsylvania's largest freshwater tidal marsh in what is now known as the John Heinz National Wildlife Refuge.

With all of Tinicum's historic elements, it isn't surprising then to learn that the township harbors what is believed to be the oldest existing immigration hospital in the United States.

Opened in 1800 in the Essington section of Tinicum, the Lazaretto, named for the biblical Lazarus who was raised from the dead, was built as a quarantine station for sailors, immigrants and cargo to prevent deadly diseases from being spread to the mainland.

In keeping such societal scourges as yellow fever at bay, officials at Lazaretto were among the earliest enforcers of an American public health code.

Despite its originally morbid mission, the brick building is not bereft of beauty. The three-story Georgian structure, fashioned after the historic Pennsylvania Hospital in Philadelphia, contains almost 30 rooms, each with a fireplace.

After it ceased to be an immigration hospital in 1893, the Lazaretto went on to become an Army Signal Corps training ground, yacht club, flight school, and marina and seaplane base before falling vacant.

In 2000, after the property was purchased by Island Marine Partners L.L.C., the Lazaretto's days appeared numbered as plans were proposed for everything from a hotel complex to an 889-car airport parking lot on the property.

Tinicum officials prevented the 200-year-old structure from being sacrificed to a wrecking ball by purchasing Lazaretto and the 10 acres it occupies for $3.1 million in 2005.

The original plan was to use four acres for a new combined home for the Essington and Lester fire companies whose respective facilities have been deemed obsolete.

Representatives of the National Park Service and other historical organizations were brought in to help determine the fate of the Lazaretto.

In July, National Park Service Program Manager Bill Bolger issued a letter of disapproval to township officials, noting that by using half the Lazaretto land, the firehouse plans would eliminate options for future historical use, create a visual disturbance and pose a possible negative impact on archaeological finds.

Bolger is particularly concerned about the northwest corner of the Lazaretto property, the former site of a kitchen and a morgue. A nearby burial ground was also of concern not only to Bolger but to the Delaware County Planning Commission.

A geophysical and archaeological review done by a firm hired by the township uncovered "no significant artifacts" in the area of the proposed firehouse, according to former Tinicum manager Norbert Poloncarz. He noted that the new buildings were designed to compliment the Lazaretto. Ground was broken Sept. 11.

Last month the Preservation Alliance of Philadelphia filed a lawsuit to halt the $7 million firehouse construction charging that the complex was a threat to the historic and archaeological value of Lazaretto.

Last week Delaware County Judge Edward Zetusky directed attorneys for both the alliance and the township to reach a compromise that would eliminate the need for a protracted and costly legal battle.

One suggestion to relegate the firehouse project to five acres fronting Second Street and preserve the remaining five acres closest to the Delaware River for posterity, sounds like a viable solution.

The judge said he was convinced that the township officials want to keep Lazaretto intact as an historic attraction.

Indeed, township officials are sincere in their desire to preserve history as evidenced by their long campaign to "Save the Lazaretto." Instead of acceding to an easy enhancement of the township's tax base by allowing developers to destroy the historic site, they claimed it for the township.

Their desire to protect their community with a state-of-the-art fire facility is also an important part of the proposition. Hopefully their lawyers can reach an agreement with Preservation Alliance attorneys before Wednesday, the next scheduled court hearing.

They have come too far not to make the most of this important part of American history.