Lazaretto Lazaretto
Source: Preservation Online (National Trust)
Date: May 1, 2006
Byline: Margaret Foster

Pa. Town To Build Near Oldest Quarantine Station

po050106Tinicum Township, located south of Philadelphia's airport, plans to restore the Lazaretto's main building but build nearby. (Doug Heller)

Rescued from demolition less than a year ago, the country's oldest quarantine station is threatened again — this time by the very town that saved it. Tinicum Township, which bought the Lazaretto, built in 1799 after a yellow fever epidemic in Philadelphia, 10 miles away, now plans to build a fire station complex on half of the 10-acre riverfront site.

Last month, a task force that includes the National Trust's Northeast Field Office formed to persuade township officials to build somewhere else.

"The site should be developed for public use," says local architect Richard Linderman, a member of the task force. "The National Park Service should end up with it eventually and develop it into a national landmark. But if you take up half the site for parking lot and fire station, it's gone forever."

Six years ago, a developer bought the Lazaretto property, intending to tear down its seven historic buildings, including the main Georgian building. But the township denied several zoning requests, and locals, with the help of the Preservation Alliance of Greater Philadelphia and the National Trust's Northeast Office, fended off demolition. With $2 million in state funds, the township bought the $3.1 million property in July 2005.

Now the township plans to build a 36,000-square-foot fire station complex and parking lot on its property, angering preservationists, who say the new buildings will disturb graves and obscure the view of the long-abandoned Lazaretto.

"Not only would the proposed fire station severely limit the archeological potential of the site, it would also screen the building from the street and public view," Linderman says.

Named for the Italian version of Lazarus, the patron saint of lepers, the Lazaretto was the predecessor to Ellis Island, holding immigrants and others during yellow fever and cholera epidemics. Archaeologists on the task force say that unearthing their graves could disturb live pathogens, Linderman says. Before any construction takes place, the state historical museum commission will fund a $50,000 archaeological study of the site.

Both the state commission and the Delaware County planning commission object to Tinicum's plan. At a December meeting, the county planning commission's recommendation was disapproval, according to Kathy Wandersee, principal planner at the county planning department. However, the commission "is purely advisory," she says. "The final decision is up to the township commissioners."