Lazaretto Lazaretto
Source: The Philadelphia Architect
Date: May 2006
Byline: Richard Linderman, AIA, NCARB

18th Century National Landmark At Risk

Imagine a fire station being built directly in front of the main entrance to the Ellis Island Immigration Museum.

Or a parking lot replacing the beautiful shores of the Angel Island Immigration Station in San Francisco Bay.

If a Delaware County, PA municipality has its way that's just what could happen to the Lazaretto, the 1799 quarantine station located less than 10 miles southwest of Philadelphia. Tinicum Township plans to build its new 36,000-square-foot municipal fire department with several acres of paved parking on the front half of the 10-acre Lazaretto site.

Immigration Station is a National Landmark

Pre-dating such national landmarks as Ellis Island, Angel Island, and the Canadian Facility at Grosse Isle in the Saint Laurence River in Quebec, the Lazaretto was built in response to the devastating yellow fever epidemic of 1793. It functioned for most of the 19th century inspecting ships headed up the Delaware River towards Philadelphia. Thousands of immigrants' first steps on US soil took place at the Lazaretto.

"The Lazaretto is a major national landmark with international significance," says Bill Bolger of the National Park Service. "It is distinguished historically, architecturally, politically, and culturally. Tinicum Township's proposed fire station will irreparably damage its integrity and severely limit its potential as a distinguished site of learning and commemoration."

Tinicum Township acquired the Lazaretto with help from Pennsylvania state grants in the early 2000s in an effort to save it from developers who wanted the land to build private parking facilities for nearby Philadelphia International Airport. Now Tinicum Township would like to use the site for its new fire station. Although the plans allow for the preservation of the Lazaretto's main three-and-a-half story Georgian brick administrative building, the construction of a new fire department on this site poses a direct threat to the historic integrity of the Lazaretto and future development of the site as a historic landmark.

A Rich Treasure with Archeological Resources

The site of the Lazaretto also has significant potential to yield other historic artifacts from various eras. The fertile strip of land sits on the banks of the Delaware River near the mouth of Darby Creek and what is now the John Heinz Wildlife Refuge tidal estuary. It has been home to Native Americans for the past ten thousand years. The site also lies within the area identified as the capital of the New Sweden settlement of 1643, the first European settlement in Pennsylvania. Archeological remains from both of these eras are likely present on the 10-acre site.

During the early part of the 20th century through World War I, the Lazaretto served as the Philadelphia Seaplane Base, one of the earliest and most noted seaplane bases in the nation. Early aviation structures pertaining to this important history survive on the property today.

Additionally, the proposed site for the fire station once served as a graveyard for the quarantine station. Although the bodies were reported to have been exhumed in the early part of the 20th century, the potential for human remains still exists.

Preserving Our Heritage

If the proposed fire station is constructed as planned, it would screen the historic administration building from the street and public view, decreasing awareness and greatly jeopardizing its value as an educational resource. The construction would also preempt future archeological investigation that could yield important information about native settlement and the 17th century New Sweden settlement. It could also disturb "sacred ground" where scores of immigrants seeking a new life in America were buried.

A Task Force has been formed to help prevent the fire station from being built as planned and persuade Tinicum Township to consider other alternatives. It is in the public's best interest that the Lazaretto site and its stories remain broadly accessible for engagement, education, and heritage tourism.

Richard Linderman, AIA, NCARB, is principal of Linderman Group Architects, Inc. in Chester, PA, just outside Philadelphia. He is a member of the Lazaretto Task Force, and is also heavily involved with preservation and redevelopment efforts in the historic Central Business District of Chester. Additionally he is also active with the Delaware County Coastal Zone Task Force. For more information on how you can help save the Lazaretto, please visit the website at www.ushistory.org/laz or contact Richard Linderman, AIA, at (610) 874-5101.