Source: National Park Service
Date: July 7, 2006
Byline: J. Keith Everett, Associate Regional Director
Letter to Norbert Poloncarz, Municipal Manager, Tinicum Township
National Park Service
July 7, 2006
Dear Mr. Ploncarz:
We wish to clarify the National Park Service’s (NPS) position regarding the historical significance of the Lazaretto property, the Tinicum Township’s proposed development of the property, and the pending documentation work to be undertaken by the NPS Historic American Buildings Survey (HABS) in the coming months. We are aware that the Township and others may construe our involvement in the Lazaretto project as tacit approval of the current plans to build the firehouse complex and parking lot. Unfortunately, we cannot support the construction project and feel that it is important at this time to clarify our views and intentions. The following will outline our evaluation regarding the damage that will occur as a result of the new construction and how this relates to our emergency historical documentation of the property.
As to the historic significance of the Lazaretto property (a ten-acre parcel located on the Delaware River in Essington, Tinicum Township, Chester County, Pennsylvania and listed on the National Register of Historic Places), we are only beginning to discover the inestimable value that this site holds for all Americans. This property was developed by the City of Philadelphia as its immigration quarantine station in 1799 and functioned in this capacity for nearly a century. To our knowledge, it is the only such surviving facility in this country built before the facilities at Ellis Island in 1892. The property offers truly unique opportunities to study and present to the public the history of one of the most important themes in American history, the history of immigration and the efforts to manage it from the end of the 18th century throughout the 19th century. Both the extant architecture at the site as well as the archeological resources that have already been identified contain information that has no equal. We also believe it is possible there may be archeological resources related to the Printzhof, the 17th century Swedish settlement, the first European settlement within Pennsylvania. It should be noted that research on this site has only recently commenced and that all who are interested are at a disadvantage in not knowing more at this time. However, given what we do know, the Lazaretto may prove to be one of the most significant historic sites in the nation, and therefore deserves the highest possible consideration for preservation and development allowing public access and programming.
We believe that the present plans being pursued, to construct a firehouse and emergency evacuation center that will cover half (approximately five acres) of the Lazaretto site, will irreparably damage the site and severely impair the remaining portions. This firehouse complex, which was apparently designed for another location within the Township, will negatively impact the Lazaretto property in three significant ways. First, it will either directly disturb or seal from future access the archeological resources that are located on the northern half of the property. Despite recent funding and commendable study efforts, thanks to the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission, the archeological resources nonetheless deserve much more intensive scrutiny. The success and value of a public history program at Lazaretto will need to depend on the detailed information that can be derived from the site. Such on-going excavation could also be an invaluable part of an historic site’s role engaging the public in what would be the emerging understanding of our immigrant past. Also important, any possible surviving evidence of the Printzhof cannot be considered as the techniques used so far are not adequate in assessing the presence of resources from that period.
The second negative impact of the new construction will be the obvious visual intrusion that such a massive building and extensive parking lot will have on the historic setting. The firehouse, evacuation center, banquet hall, and 200 car parking lot will dominate the entire half of the Lazaretto property on the inland side. Access to the remaining historic property will necessarily be subject to the overpowering presence of the new construction and all views from the historic hospital building towards the north will be consumed by it as well. It appears that little consideration was given to the impact that this massive new construction will have on the 18th century hospital building and its setting.
Finally, the new construction is likely to preempt planning needs that the historic site will necessarily have for its own operation. It is premature to impose such extensive limitations when the strategic needs of the historic site have not been analyzed.
In 2004, the NPS was asked to support the Township’s move to rescue the property from the previous owners. We did so, unaware of these particular development plans for the property. Certainly we support preserving the historic Lazaretto property, but in applying our policies and guidelines we must regretfully conclude that this proposed construction would be destructive and disastrous for long term preservation and public understanding of the site.
We also do not believe that the Township of Tinicum should be expected to solely develop and finance a major historic site such as this. If the property is as important as we and others believe, then other funding and management organizations should be called on to assist in this important effort. Earlier we proposed that a special task force be formed in the fall of 2004 to help assess options, develop a strategy for funding, and help implement it. NPS staff and other concerned citizens have also offered to meet with the Township officials and discuss the preservation issues and options. Such suggestions have been ignored thus far. We hope that will change.
It is precisely because the property is threatened that we have agreed to undertake historical documentation of the architecture of the Lazaretto. Having completed the first section of the
report we are now prepared to move ahead in preparing architectural drawings. The Historic American Buildings Survey, one of our oldest cultural resources programs, was established in the 1930s for the very purpose of documenting important but highly threatened historic architecture. While the use of this type of documentation often is part of exemplary preservation projects, we still employ it in instances of imminent threat and destruction in order to record for posterity information that will otherwise be lost. This is certainly the case at the Lazaretto and we hope that our efforts will not be represented as indicating support for a destructive approach to this most remarkable site.
Should you wish to reconsider the current course of action we will be more than happy to work with you to help preserve the site in a manner that is appropriate. Please do not hesitate to call Bill Bolger, National Historic Landmarks Program Manager at 215-597-1649 to discuss this matter in further detail.
J. Keith Everett