Lazaretto Lazaretto
Source: Philadelphia Inquirer
Date: June 21, 2006
Byline: Todd Mason

A preservation battle over immigrant site

The Lazaretto quarantine station on the Delaware River represented a fateful hurdle for immigrants bound for Philadelphia in the 1800s. Any passenger showing signs of disease got no farther.

In this century, the old brick hospital with the antiquated name is still disrupting plans.

A developer who bought the Tinicum Township site in 2000 proposed an airport parking lot that would have meant demolishing the Lazaretto, built in 1799. To save it, the township bought the 10-acre property last year.

Now, historic preservationists want to stop the township's own plan to build a 38,500-square-foot firehouse complex on half the tract at a cost of more than $7 million. Even though the plan would preserve the Lazaretto, critics say that a new building of the proposed size would block the Lazaretto from public view and destroy its historical context.

Early Philadelphians — who didn't want disease carriers within city limits — named the hospital for St. Lazarus, the patron saint of lepers and modeled it on European quarantine stations.

The debate pits Tinicum firefighters, volunteers at the heart of the township, against historians who discovered only recently that Lazaretto may be the last building of its kind left standing in the United States.

Both sides are nursing bruises.

"We bought the property; we saved the building," said Township Manager Norbert Poloncarz. For that, "we have been mocked and lied about."

"That's a great answer, isn't it?" preservationist Bill Bolger said of the township plan. "Chop the baby in half?" Bolger is a member of an ad hoc task force trying to preserve the site.

Tinicum has rebuffed requests to meet with the task force, Bolger said.

In his full-time job, Bolger is Northeast regional manager in Philadelphia for the National Park Service's historic-landmark program.

The critics have official — but nonbinding — support. The Delaware County Planning Commission and the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission oppose the township's plans, but only have advisory powers. Nevertheless, the township is pressing ahead. Commissioners intend to start the bid process on Monday, and award contracts in late July.

Tinicum's building plans are ambitious for a community of 4,400 souls served by volunteer firefighters. The proposed eight-bay fire station would feature a gym, a recreation room, and semiprivate dorm rooms.

An attached emergency evacuation center would have a dance floor, a kitchen, a wet bar, provisions for beer taps, and parking for 202 cars, according to the bid specifications.

"We thought we could also use it for [banquet] rentals to bring some money in to the fire company," said Maureen Shields, president of the Essington Fire Company.

Once in a new building, the Essington company would merge with the neighboring Lester Fire Co., the better to share manpower and money in an area with a shrinking industrial base and dwindling population.

The new firehouse "was part of the deal," Shields said, sweetening an unpopular choice for volunteers. To stay within budget, the township would likely build the evacuation center as a shell and finish it later.

The township tried to build the firehouse on a different site in 2004, but it couldn't afford what was then the low bid of $7.2 million.

So Tinicum turned to the Lazaretto site, and got a $2 million state grant for preservation work and an additional $3.5 million for a firehouse. The township pledged to contribute $5.5 million more.

The township paid $3.1 million for the property, and so far has spent $237,000 to mothball the building.

Eventually, the township will approach preservation groups about funding restoration work, said board president William Wasch. Tinicum has replaced the roof and sealed and secured the building.

Tinicum "has already put more money into it than anyone has in 50 years," said Matthew Bernauer, president of the Lester company.

The project's critics "don't live in the township," said Robert Bernauer, Lester's fire chief and Matthew's father. "They are outsiders."

The Lazaretto's supporters are relative latecomers. Historians are only now discovering it, said David Barnes, a University of Pennsylvania history professor.

The Lazaretto's value is the stories of immigrant groups who passed through it long before Ellis Island came to symbolize foreign teeming masses.

The more research Barnes did, he said, "the more shocked I was that no historian has written anything substantial about the Lazaretto."

The Lazaretto's disappearing act had its pluses, he said. With little subsequent interest in the building, the interior layout "is more or less as it was" in the 1800s, Barnes said.

The task force says the township is jeopardizing the building's recognition as a national landmark and as a candidate for private and federal funding for restoration.

"Who would spend money on restoration if the public can't see the building?" asked Richard Linderman, a task force member and Chester architect.

The L-shaped firehouse would extend 281 feet along Second Street, leaving 64 feet of open view on one side and 131 feet on the other. Critics say the buildings and pavement will cover potentially valuable archeological finds, and perhaps the graves of immigrants.

Poloncarz, the township manager, said that Tinicum had presented an archeological study to the state Historical Commission, which agreed that further excavation wouldn't add to historians' understanding of the Lazaretto. The graves were moved in 1900, he said.

Bolger, the historic-landmark chief, for one, isn't convinced. "If there is ever a firehouse in front of the building, I don't even want to go back and see it again," he said.