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NPR Arts and Life

Art Project Opens Long-Closed Ellis Island Hospital

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

In 2006, we took a tour of Ellis Island's long forgotten south side hospital with Stephen Wilkes, a photographer, and look at old photos that brought memories of old spaces back to life.

STEPHEN WILKES: Someone said to me once, there's history in the light in these pictures, and I think that's really true.

SIMON: Save Ellis Island, a non-profit group in New York, is today doing the same thing with French artist JR. The organization recently debuted "Unframed - Ellis Island." That's an art project in the dilapidated hospital that transforms photos into life-size window features. And for the first time in decades, the hospital grounds will be open to the public. Janis Calella is president of the Save Ellis Island project. Thanks very much for being with us.

JANIS CALELLA: Oh, you're very welcome.

SIMON: Describe for us some of what we'll be able to see.

CALELLA: You will be able to visit many of the buildings - the Laundry Building, the morgue or mortuary, the various wards, infectious disease wards, staff housing. And along the route, you will also see some - many of them are hidden in stairwells and secret rooms - JR's installation.

SIMON: For example, you'll be able to see children looking out of a window?

CALELLA: You'll be able to see the children looking out of the window. You'll be able to see immigrants, weary and tired and sort of leaning on each other, waiting for the next step in the process to enter the United States. It's an incredible interpretation of a period of time that was so important in our American history.

SIMON: I say this having been to that dilapidated, abandoned, old hospital myself - did you see any ghosts?

CALELLA: Actually I think I felt the presence of a ghost, a very strong presence. And so we do have most of our visitors looking over their shoulder occasionally.

SIMON: You do feel the presence of people when you're there, don't you?

CALELLA: You know, some people have almost described it as an overwhelming presence. I've taken people through there that have to stop for a few minutes to compose themselves. Many are moved to tears when they're in the hospital. It's a wonderful experience. It evokes memories in some and, you know, many of the young people that we take through the hospital today, they think about their own heritage. And they think about various conditions in the country today that are reflected upon what happened so many years ago.

SIMON: Janis Calella, head of the Save Ellis Island project. Thanks so much for being with us.

CALELLA: It was my pleasure. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.