A rebirth for the historic Lazaretto

“You can hear the jets taking off overhead, you’re right next door to the airport, you can practically hear the cars on [Interstate] 95,” says David Barnes. “But if you don’t look too far to the right or to the left, you can imagine a big ship in the 1820s sailing up. That’s the landscape that they saw then.”


John Milner

Barnes, an associate professor in the Department of History and Sociology of Science, is describing the scene that greets modern-day visitors to the Lazaretto quarantine station, located on the banks of the Delaware River just outside Philadelphia. Opened in 1801 in response to recurring and devastating outbreaks of yellow fever, the Lazaretto served as a point for inspection and quarantine of ships, cargo, passengers and crew bound for the Port of Philadelphia until its closing in 1895.

Tens of thousands of vessels, and hundreds of thousands of people, passed through the Lazaretto. For many immigrants, it was the first time they touched American soil — their Ellis Island.

Now, the site is serving as a touchstone for interdisciplinary study. Lending perspectives from history, architectural preservation, and medicine, Penn scholars and students are uncovering secrets of the Lazaretto’s intriguing past.

Not too long ago, the Lazaretto’s fate was in question. Developers wanted to raze the historic buildings and install an airport parking facility. To save it, in 2005, Tinicum Township paid $3.1 million to purchase the property, and in February of this year the township took a step toward securing the site’s future, announcing plans to restore the Georgian-style main building and move its municipal offices and police station there, pending extensive fundraising.

To properly restore the structures of the Lazaretto, it’s important to understand how and in what style they were constructed. That’s the aim of a PennDesign graduate course that historic preservation professor John Milner and instructor Christina Carter, both principals at the firm John Milner Architects, are co-teaching this semester.

The hands-on course allows students to focus on one feature of the site to research. “They determine when it was built, how it was built, how it has changed over time, and then come up with strategies for its preservation and continued use,” says Milner.

The students’ projects range from uncovering paint layers on the walls of the main building to making measured drawings of one of the outbuildings. The smallest details can offer clues to the chronology, or era, of construction and renovation.

“We can look at different types of nails, and sometimes saw marks or hand plane marks can help place it,” says Carter.

“This whole course revolves around the process of discovery, which is what makes it so appealing for the students,” says Milner. “To find something that no one else knew about and pursue it can be very rewarding.”

Among the insights the class has generated so far is that certain structural changes appear to have been made to the main building around 1820. Barnes is particularly interested in that possibility, as that was the same year of a major yellow fever epidemic.

Barnes, who is writing a book about the Lazaretto’s history, has pored through two-century-old minutes from meetings of the Philadelphia Board of Health to grasp how physicians of the day thought about infectious disease and quarantine. He is also committed to seeing the Lazaretto restored and transformed into a space for exhibits and interpretation related to the history of quarantine and public health.

Already, several public events have brought historical interpreters to the Lazaretto. P.J. Brennan, chief medical officer for the Penn Health System, has performed as a historical re-enactor, demonstrating what was known about surgical techniques and medical practices at the time—from bloodletting to drilling holes in the skull to relieve pressure. A specialist in infectious diseases, Brennan has long been intrigued by the Lazaretto. “I just think it’s a jewel with a very rich history.”

Barnes agrees, seeing the Lazaretto as a “place that made me think about history differently.” And he thinks it can do the same for others. “That’s the power of this site, to bring this hidden history, these lost stories back to life.”

Originally published on April 12, 2012