Lazaretto Lazaretto
Source: Philadelphia Inquirer
Date: August 22, 2005
Byline: Jeff Price

Township rescues historic site on Delaware

With state aid, Tinicum keeps Lazaretto Quarantine Station "and the stories it has to tell" from demolition.

As the ship plows up the Delaware River, heading toward Philadelphia, a lookout in the watch house spots it. He rings a bell to alert the barge house.

The bargeman calls for the physician and the quarantine master.

They go aboard to inspect passengers, crew and cargo, looking for any signs of disease or contamination. If any is found, everyone is taken off the ship and brought ashore — to the Lazaretto Quarantine Station.

Sick people are isolated in the hospital wings of the main building. There they will stay until they are well — or until they die.

That was the welcome that greeted tens of thousands of immigrants to Philadelphia from 1800 to the 1890s, when the federal government took over the quarantine business and moved operations to Marcus Hook (closed in 1919). Today, the Lazaretto, in Essington, Delaware County, is considered one of the nation's most significant historical sites.

And preservationists worldwide owe a debt to tiny Tinicum Township, which has rescued the Lazaretto from demolition and is planning its restoration.

"The Lazaretto is the most significant endangered property in the entire state, for the incredible history there and the stories it has to tell," said Randy Cotton, associate editor of the Preservation Alliance for Greater Philadelphia. "It is the last of its kind in the country."

Becky Sell of Philadelphia, who did her master's thesis on the Lazaretto, explained that the term is a mid-16th-century Italian word for "place set aside for performance of quarantine" and derives from St. Lazarus, patron saint of lepers. The Georgian structures were begun in 1799 to protect Philadelphia from the scourge of communicable diseases.

The Lazaretto had a colorful history after its days as an isolation hospital, serving as a pleasure resort and a seaplane base beginning before World War I.

But when the property was sold to Island Marine Partners L.L.C. in 2000, the developer wanted to level the Lazaretto.

Tinicum Township wouldn't roll over. Island Marine's plans were rejected, but Township Manager Norbert Poloncarz knew the case would go to court and the township would lose.

"If we don't buy that property, that building is gone; that's the bottom line," Poloncarz said.

The township didn't have the more than $3 million needed, but it did have friends in high places.

Wayne Spilove, chairman of the powerful Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission, had discovered the Lazaretto and was intrigued: "It's our equal to Ellis Island."

State Rep. Ron Raymond, whose district includes the Tinicum area, knew where some grant money could be found, Poloncarz said, and Spilove noted that Gov. Rendell, like everyone else, "realized the value of the Lazaretto and stepped to the plate quickly."

Oh, one other thing. The Essington and Lester Fire Companies had agreed to merge, but needed a place for the combined firehouse and for the township's planned emergency evacuation center.

Poloncarz explained that putting the firehouse and evacuation center on four of the Lazaretto's 10.2 acres would allow the township to access enough funding to buy the historical ground.

"If we can't build the firehouse," he said, "we couldn't buy the property."

In April, the state approved two grants for Tinicum, $3.5 million for the firehouse and evacuation center and $2 million for the Lazaretto. Both are matching grants and will eventually mean a total of $11 million from the state. On July 28, Tinicum Township became owner of the Lazaretto property for $3.1 million.

"If it weren't for Tinicum Township, the nation would have lost this property," said Bill Bolger, a top official for the National Park Service in Philadelphia.

The township has signed a $450,000 contract with MacCombie Engineering & Surveyors to make the Lazaretto secure and watertight until money for restoration can be found. The Historical and Museum Commission has approved a $50,000 survey of the site. Finding graves could complicate firehouse plans.

"There are hundreds, if not thousands, of bodies all over that site — bodies of immigrants who came over here and didn't make it," Sell said.

Next, Poloncarz said, the township will launch a feasibility study. Preservationists would like the Lazaretto to be a public historic site only, but are realistic enough to know money is again an issue. That might mean part museum, part community services, maybe even rented space.

In 1972, the Lazaretto was listed on the National Register of Historic Places, but Bolger said he is aiming for a National Historic Landmark. That is the "elite," only 3 percent, of the Historic Places list, he said.

In praising the township's and Poloncarz's work and describing his effort to save the Lazaretto, Raymond said: "It's the best thing we've done in our careers."

Lazaretto Quarantine Station

"A remarkably preserved collection of early nineteenth century medical and residential buildings on a ten-acre site, mixed with remnants from early twentieth century aviation occupation, are critical components of the stories of immigration, medical, and quarantine history, as well as early seaplane aviation."
–Becky Sell's thesis for master of science degree in historical preservation at the University of Pennsylvania, 2005.

The Lazaretto in Essington is not one building, but a series of structures that were part of the quarantine operation from 1799 to 1895. Those include:

Remaining structures

  • Main building — administration section, two hospital wings.
  • Kitchen — separate, served main building.
  • Bargeman's House — built on the river.
  • Corrugated Shed 1 — aviation repair shed.
  • Corrugated Shed 2 — seaplane hangar.
  • Physician's House — now property of Riverside Yacht Club.
  • Stable — on Riverside Yacht Club land.

Demolished structures

  • Watch House — twin of Bargeman's House.
  • Quarantine Landing
  • Boat House
  • Quarantine Master's House — twin of Physician's House.
  • Ice House
  • Hospital