Tag Archives: ruin

A secret note awaits me

when I climb the stairs to the attic above the administration building at Ellis Island’s abandoned hospital complex. A central spot there, the admin building, it is the place where all sick immigrants checked in a hundred years ago, and is also the place where nurses were quartered, upstairs. The air in the attic is dense with the aroma of old wood. There’s rusted machinery here, the workings of the original Otis Elevator shaft, and the note, age-yellowed, was carefully taped there by somebody, once, who believed it was important.

Also, on the floor below the attic, the ruins of wards, right down the way from where the nurses lived. So they could get there right quick if their help was needed.

Is there anything better than a secret note? I don’t think so. I remember long ago I wrote a poem called The Back of a Love Note, now gone with the wind, as is the life of a poet I fancied myself having. I still love secrets, whether they’re the back of a love note or any other kind. Ellis Island has them in spades.

I saw a lot of secrets today, secrets I hadn’t seen before. In the attic, a trick of the light which somehow produces a mysterious green shadow.

A bird’s nest in a light fixture.

Mysteries everywhere. Spirits? Possibly. Somebody told me yesterday on my tour that they smelled chocolate in the empty corridor. Today, when I took around a group of photographers, they were sure they caught the scent of laundry soap in the nurses’ dorm. Olfactory hallucinations.

I am well aware that ghosts may not be real. I know some people don’t believe in them. I believe that ghosts are the thoughts and ideas and emotions and need we bring to certain spaces. When I enter the bedrooms and bathrooms of the Staff house, where doctors lived with their families, my chest seizes up. The presence of the past is that strong. People lived here. Loved here.

One ward with locked rooms for psychiatric patients has graffiti that someone was smart enough to preserve. Men undergoing treatment here scrawled their names by the door frames. Johnies Room.

Secrets of the past. Someone thought it imperative to pencil a crude drawing of the Immigration Station. And to offer his thoughts on the sad way of the world.

Where the nurses lived a rainbow is a constant on an otherwise neutral wall.

Do the nurses speak to us, sending this prismatic message across the decades? Sometimes things just glow here.

A guest came with me into the room that was the equivalent of hospice a century ago, a place for the sickest of the sick, where many died of multiple ailments, tuberculosis and syphilis and heart disease.

She told me that something had popped up on the ghost hunter app on her phone when she entered the ward. Just three words. Simple: We are everywhere. Make of it what you will. Of course, 40 percent of Americans can trace their family lineage through Ellis Island so perhaps it’s not such a stretch that we are everywhere.

If you look closely, you’ll find secrets. We are told to stop then let go. A fairly wise message, applicable every day, I think.

A resident felt it was important to decorate the edge of a shelf in a hidden closet.

A secret bathtub under the eaves.

Even the textures of wall paint, remnants over remnants over the years, offer their own secret story.

Secrets. Mysteries. Sometimes, love.


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Beauty hurts

and I shoot when I’m in the most pain. Joe McNally credited a fellow photographer with that exquisite sentiment in the course of a workshop at the abandoned hospital complex at Ellis Island today. He taught, and led by example, shooting pictures of his own as the day progressed.

I liked helping guide the group around the complex and hearing this pro’s ideas about how to see and to show what is all around us there.

McNally, a veteran photographer (National Geographic, Sports Illustrated, New York Stock Exchange annual reports, etc., etc.) had shot Ellis Island in the late 1980s, when even the main immigration building hadn’t been fully restored and the south side of the island was a wreck. Save Ellis Island, the nonprofit that employs me as an educator, has now stabilized some spaces to what is called a condition of arrested decay.

We snooped around a lot of areas I don’t usually take tourists.

Some wards, as decrepit as they are, give off a somehow beautiful feeling. Blue was thought to be a calming paint color to use in wards, especially those housing patients with psychiatric woes, and I think it still soothes the savage breast, as playwright William Congreve said about music back in the day.

Other people helped with the tour and provided their own bright color. Charles.

I thought about Leonardo da Vinci. He said, Learn how to see. Realize that everything connects to everything else.

For the photographers today, it was all about the light. The quality of light here is very forgiving, McNally assured his students.

You feel it palpably, he said.

The weather cooperated. Dawn came up pink in New York Harbor.

Later, lightning and rain, courtesy of Fiona brushing by up the coast, offered just enough mood.

Photographers don’t all like to be bothered with facts, even at such an iconic spot. It’s usually about the framing, the exposure, shutter speed.

Some tolerated a little historical grit to accompany the visual grit at the hospital. This was a ward where the sickest of the sick received treatment, I told a few of them, keeping it simple. Or, Nurses lived in these quarters.

To whomever I could get to listen, I said, Florence Nightingale’s ideas were so important to the medical protocol here. She believed in sunshine, fresh air, and handwashing. That’s why you see so many handwashing sinks as you go throughout the complex.

Neither the sun nor death can be looked at steadily, quoth La Rochefoucauld, back in the 17th century. Perhaps it is just too difficult to stand in the hospital ruin’s spaces and really grok what went on there, that there were human beings working, suffering, being healed there. Existing. The oversized autoclave was used to sterilize mattresses so that people wouldn’t die.

Emerson said, The invariable mark of wisdom is to see the miraculous in the common. A faded scrap of carpet remains, improbably.

Coal bins in a jumble. Don’t mind us, we’re just crucial historical artifacts.

An industrial spin dryer: The Fletcher Whirlwind. We can only imagine the important folks who once did the wash here and kept everything sanitary.

The group spent time in the morgue. Nice location for a fashion shoot some day.

McNally talked about what to do if you want to impart a patina rather than shooting it raw.

The abandoned hospital complex offers nothing if not patina. Are there ghosts here? You be the judge.

One photographer actually came all the way from Lisbon to take the class – also to hang out with half a dozen pals who knew each other from the trenches. He said you can’t beat the atmosphere at the abandoned hospital complex. I said, Say spaghetti and meatballs! and clicked. Savoring the light.

You must give birth to your images, said Rilke, he who knew everything about everything. They are the future waiting to be born.


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Something happened today. Something out of the ordinary.

I was taking my group on the walking tour of the abandoned hospital complex at Ellis Island. We went into the “hospice room,” which was many peoples’ last stop at the hospital. As usual, the spaces at Ellis had been magical, evocative, spooky, and above all historical. There is a room where someone once swore they caught the fragrance of lavender. Another person, it is reported, heard children’s faint laughter down a corridor. In one space, the nurses’ quarters, a rainbow likes to appear on one wall no matter the weather, rain or shine. I’ve seen it many times but have never been able to capture it in a picture.

I always like to ask people when we get to the hospice room to take a moment to reflect on all the people that had come through the hospital wanting to come to America, making sacrifices we cannot imagine to come to America, and ultimately not making it here. 

(Or, as has been pointed out to me, only making to one of the New York area cemeteries.)

Blue, by the way, was considered a calming color, and so many of the sick ward walls at Ellis were painted blue.

People on my tours take that moment to reflect, then we move on to another space. After today’s tour a woman caught up with me to tell me something. She said that on her ghost-buster phone app, as we stood in the hospice and took that moment of silence, some words popped up on her screen: “we are everywhere.” That had never happened before, she said.

Phone app– latter-day Ouija Board. Okay, easy to say. Nonsense? When you are there, in the moment, it feels like anything but. Chills.

We’ll see what happens tomorrow. Anything is possible.

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