Lazaretto Lazaretto
Source: Preservation Architect
Date: September 25, 2006
Byline: Richard Linderman, AIA

The Lazaretto: An 18th-Century Landmark at Risk

The Historic Sites Advisory Team is working with the Lazaretto Task Force to work for the preservation of the Lazaretto, which was developed as the Philadelphia Quarantine Hospital in response to the devastating yellow fever epidemic of 1793. The present building dates to 1799, but the site also has a rich history of Native American settlement and was a part of the New Sweden settlement of 1643. The site is currently threatened by planned development by its owner, Tinicum Township, as described in the article below.

The Historic Sites Advisory Team was founded by the AIA Historic Resources Committee (HRC) to work with local agencies and groups for the preservation of nationally significant historic resources. Made up of former HRC Advisory Group chairs, the Team serves as a resource to AIA in identifying threats to historic resources and determining the appropriate advocacy responses. We anticipate taking further action in urging local officials, legislators, and the public to recognize the value of this resource, to explore development alternatives, and to plan for the preservation of the site.

–Michael J. Mills, FAIA, chair, AIA Historic Sites Advisory Team

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 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

Predating 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. For most of the 19th century, it functioned as a station to inspect cargo and screen passengers on ships headed up the Delaware River toward Philadelphia. Thousands of immigrants' first steps on U.S. soil took place at the Lazaretto.

"The Lazaretto is a major national landmark with international significance," says Bill Bolger, program manager, National Historic Landmarks, 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 over the past five years 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 wants to use the site for its new fire station. Although the plans allow for the preservation of the Lazaretto's main 3.5-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 10,000 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.

In addition, the proposed site for the fire station once served as a graveyard for the quarantine station. Although the bodies reportedly were exhumed in the early 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. For more information on how you can help save the Lazaretto, please visit the Web site at www.ushistory.org/laz or contact Richard Linderman, AIA, at 610-874-5101 or dick@linderman.net.


Richard Linderman, AIA, is principal of Linderman Group Architects 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. In addition, he is active with the Delaware County Coastal Zone Task Force.