Like the 19th-century immigrants who sweated through the deadly yellow fever epidemic in the wards of the Lazaretto Quarantine Station, the handsome, redbrick hospital on the banks of the Delaware River in Tinicum Township was not expected to survive. The Lazaretto is a utilitarian structure with imperfect brickwork and pine floors, most likely designed by the carpenters who built it. There are almost no hallways, so one room flows into the next, railroad style. It was too big to be converted into a house, too awkward to lay out for apartments.
Of course, some developer wanted to raze the National Register building to create yet another remote parking lot for the Philadelphia Airport.
That would have given the cars one of best views of the Delaware in the Philadelphia area.
Happily, for those who care about American history, the demolition never happened. Tinicum Township, a municipal speck of 4,000 people on the lee side of I-95, where 70 percent of the land is paved over with airport runways and parking lots, said no. Actually, it did more than that. It found a new use for the white elephant and raised more than $8 million for renovation. This summer, the Lazaretto will rise again when the township moves its offices into the building.
When I visited last week, workers were still laying sod on the slope that rolls down to the lush banks of the Delaware, where pleasure boats bob in the waves and the lacy span of the Commodore Barry Bridge crowns the horizon. The Lazaretto was looking pretty good for a 219-year-old. Under the supervision of architects Nan Gutterman and Albert Comly Jr. of Vitetta, the pond-size holes in the floors have been covered in wide oak floorboards. All the fireplace mantels, medical cupboards, and wood trim have been refurbished. And the building has been outfitted with three essential modern conveniences: toilets, elevators, and fire stairs.
The Lazaretto hasn’t looked this fresh since it opened, probably in 1800. That was seven years after the first, and most devastating, in a series of yellow fever epidemics hit Philadelphia. The city lost 10 percent of its population during the first outbreak and similar numbers in the seasonal epidemics that followed. Although doctors didn’t yet understand how mosquitoes transmitted the disease, they knew enough to suspect that the fever was being brought into the city on immigrant ships.
In 1799, the Philadelphia Board of Health purchased land on what was then Tinicum Island to establish a quarantine station. Every ship heading upriver to the city was required to stop for inspection, and any passenger showing signs of yellow fever, smallpox, cholera, or typhus was ferried over to the Lazaretto to recover — or die. More than 225,000 European immigrants and enslaved Africans spent time at the medical way station, dubbed the Lazaretto after St. Lazarus of Bethany, the patron saint of lepers, and a similar quarantine station in Venice.
We hear a lot about big, unwieldy buildings in our region that are moldering away because no one is willing to spend the money needed to make them useful again. There are occasional 11th-hour saves by private developers like Eric Blumenfeld, who rescued Philadelphia’s Metropolitan Opera House and the Divine Lorraine. It’s rare for a local government to jump in and spend its own money to make a historic building viable.
But the Lazaretto isn’t an everyday architectural landmark, and its rescue didn’t happen overnight.
While the Lazaretto is easily one of the most significant early-19th-century buildings in the region, it was not well-known outside of Tinicum when a parking company acquired the property in 2001. Some describe it as Philadelphia’s Ellis Island, although the title isn’t strictly accurate since healthy immigrants were processed at the Washington Avenue Immigration Station. Only the sick who were pulled off the ships for quarantine spent time at the Lazaretto.
As yellow fever and other infectious diseases spread along the Eastern Seaboard, every port city built a similar quarantine station outside its boundaries. The Lazaretto is not only the oldest of the group, it’s the only one to survive, says David Barnes, a Penn professor who is writing a history of the building for Johns Hopkins University Press.
Just as remarkable, 90 percent of the patients treated at the Lazaretto recovered, a far better cure rate than city doctors could claim. “They were given food and drink, rest and nursing care. They had clean clothing and bedding, but no real medical care,” Barnes says. Once the patients were declared well, they were allowed to travel on to meet their families in Philadelphia. The hospital’s success can’t fully be explained.
Neither can the Lazaretto’s own survival. The building stopped functioning as a hospital in 1895, after the federal government assumed responsibility for processing immigrants. It was purchased by the old Philadelphia Athletic Club, which turned the grounds into a country club for its well-heeled members.
Believe it or not, this stretch of the Delaware was a popular resort area for Philadelphians back then, a precursor to the Jersey Shore. The river marshes teemed with birds and fish, and a train took club members almost to the door of the Lazaretto. They spent their days hunting and fishing, playing lawn tennis, and enjoying fine meals.
The club shut down during World War I. In 1917, the Lazaretto was established as a seaplane base and marina, first by a private owner, and then by the U.S. Army. Even after the Philadelphia Airport gobbled up a big chunk of Tinicum, the Lazaretto marina continued to operate until the property was sold to the parking lot operator in 2001.
At first, Tinicum officials weren’t sure they wanted to go to battle over the site. The Preservation Alliance pushed them to act. “We refused to issue a demolition permit,” recalls Herbert MacCombie 3d, Tinicum’s building official.
The town finally bought the property from the developer in 2005 for $3.1 million with a plan to locate its firehouse on the property. Initially, the alliance objected because it would block views of the Lazaretto from Wanamaker Avenue, but the group eventually agreed to work with the town to save the Lazaretto.
Tinicum still didn’t know what to do with the building, however, until Paul Steinke, now head of the Alliance, suggested in 2007 that it would be a good location for a new town hall. The existing headquarters on Governor Printz Boulevard, a stylized copy of the Lazaretto built in the 1950s, was showing its age. Work didn’t begin until 2012, after Tinicum won a $2.5 million state grant. Still, it proceeded in fits and starts.
There may be grander town halls, but few are likely to have better views. Municipal workers and the public will be able to sit on the 180-foot-long porch overlooking the river. “The sunsets are beautiful,” says MacCombie.
The town plans to set aside part of the ground floor for an exhibit on the Lazaretto’s history. Barnes hopes to have it installed in time for the building’s dedication later this summer. Given the national debate on immigration, the timing is perfect. In its new life as a municipal office building, the Lazaretto will be a living memorial to a time when the country dutifully cared for the huddled masses and the wretched refuse, and then sent them on their way to a new life in America.