Lazaretto Lazaretto
Source: Northeast Preservation News
Date: July 2006
Byline: Preservation Alliance

Quarantine Stationís Future is Uncertain (Again)

Five years ago it seemed that one of the few remaining examples of quarantine stations that once protected the nation's ports from the introduction of "imported" communicable diseases, like yellow fever and cholera — the Lazaretto in Tinicum Township, PA — might be lost forever. The National Trust's Northeast Field Office became involved in the fight to protect the site when it joined the Lazaretto Feasibility Committee, comprised of local citizens and preservationists, including representatives from the Preservation Alliance for Greater Philadelphia, the National Park Service, and the Delaware County Planning Department.

The Lazaretto was commissioned and built by Philadelphia's board of health in 1799 on the banks of the Delaware River just downriver from the city. The site was originally part of a 1643 Swedish settlement, the first permanent European settlement in Pennsylvania.

Established in response to the yellow fever epidemic of 1793, the complex included a large main building, several outbuildings, and a burial ground. Philadelphia-bound ships stopped here for cargo to be inspected and passengers to be screened. Infested cargoes were fumigated or destroyed completely. Ill passengers were brought ashore to the main building, the hospital, for quarantine to await recovery or death. By some estimates, as many as 1 out of 3 Americans today are descended from those whose first exposure to the New World was here.

The then-privately owned property was sold in 2000 to Island Marine Partners which proposed various development schemes, all of which would have resulted in the demolition of the Lazaretto.

Since Tinicum Township has no protective preservation ordinance, demolition was a real possibility. Local residents and officials joined with preservationists from the region to develop strategies to save the property.

The turning point came when the Tinicum commissioners concluded that purchasing the Lazaretto property from the developers was the only sure way to protect it. State Representative Ron Raymond got behind the acquisition plan and, with the active support of Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission Chairman Wayne Spillove, eventually secured $2 million in state funds toward the more-than-$3 million purchase price.

The township came up with the matching money, and in July 2005 bought the Lazaretto. The main building and several smaller outbuildings were stabilized and "mothballed," while the National Park Service continued documentation of the history and existing conditions of the site. Plans also proceeded to build a much-needed new fire station for the township on a long-cleared portion of the Lazaretto property. It was thought that there would be a sufficient buffer zone between the new construction and the historic buildings so as not to have an intrusive visual impact.

Recently, though, the township unveiled its plans for the new fire station, which is a 38,500-square-foot structure that will occupy five streetfront acres of the ten-acre site. An adjacent 202-space parking lot will enable the firehouse to serve the community with a 300-person banquet facility and bingo hall.

A recently organized Lazaretto Task Force — which includes many individuals from the original Lazaretto Feasibility Committee — is trying to prevent the site from being overwhelmed by the construction of the proposed firehouse complex. Though the historic buildings will still be there, much of the historical context will be lost. The new complex could severely impact the aesthetic appeal of the historic buildings and obscure the public's principal view of the site, as well as disturb the historic ground of the remains of the smallpox hospital and other structures — where scores of immigrants seeking a new life in America were buried — and possibly disturb buried pathogens thought eradicated generations ago, with unknown consequences.

Working with the township, publicizing the potential damage to and the historic importance of this site, and advocating for alternatives, the group hopes that this time a solution will be found that will honor the role the Lazaretto played in Philadelphia's and the nation's history.

Visit www.ushistory.org/laz for more information and images, and to see the architectural site plan for the proposed firehouse/rental facility. Portions of this story were used with permission from the Preservation Alliance for Greater Philadelphia and ushistory.org.