ELLIS ISLAND, N.J. - John Lusko of Bayonne, N.J., stared at the Statue of Liberty from his hospital window during his two-week stay at Ellis Island in 1926. He had the measles.
At 8, he didn't know what the giant figure sparkling in the harbor represented. But the clean white sheets on his bed, a change from the straw and rags he used to stay warm in Poland, told him that she stood for something special.
"It was the first time I had ever seen it," said Lusko, now 80. "I saw all the water around it and all the ships coming in and I was excited. Everything was new."
In the seven decades that have passed, the wind, rain and sun have taken their toll not only on Lady Liberty but on the buildings on Ellis Island.
The massive statue was completely refurbished for her centennial celebration in 1986. Restoration work on four buildings on the northern end was completed in 1996.
Now the south side closest to New Jersey, known as the "Sad Side," because of its state of disrepair, is due for major renovation. The buildings were used for the administration, examination, detention and hospitalization of immigrants.
In settling a century-old jurisdictional dispute, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in May that the original island, which was about 3 acres when it became this country's main immigration point in 1892, remained under New York's jurisdiction, but that about 22.5 acres of fill added between 1890 and 1934 was New Jersey's property.
The New Jersey legislature is considering a bill to spend $4.6 million for the restoration of 29 historic buildings on the New Jersey side of the island. The money would be added to $2 million that Congress allotted this year to begin emergency structural repairs.
The National Park Service, which oversees Ellis Island, issued a report this year which stated that the buildings have reached "an accelerating state of deterioration" due to more than 40 years of neglect.
Among the brick structures in severe decay is the hospital complex where Lusko and thousands of others momentarily stopped en route to a new life.
The hospital, a former majestic sight for incoming refugees in French Renaissance design in red brick and limestone, is now a mass of dingy buildings with falling bricks, peeling paint, cracked facades, and boarded-up windows behind a barbed-wire fence with signs reading "Danger."
Inside the measles ward where Lusko stayed, pipes have turned to rust, plaster and debris cover the dirt floor that was once linoleum tile, and steel frames are peeling from the walls like bark off a tree. A variety of plants grow through the crevices, including poison ivy. The windows are either broken or blown out.
The legislation, which is in the Assembly Appropriations Committee, would be New Jersey's way of getting its newly acquired territory on par with its northern rival's.
'A greater responsibility'
"New Jersey should do its share not because it has to but because it should," said Assemblyman Neil Cohen, a Union County Democrat who co-sponsored the bill and the Assembly Deputy Democratic leader. "We have a greater responsibility than simply planting a flag there which visually establishes New Jersey's interest, but we also need to have the responsibility of ensuring its protection, restoration and resurrection for future generations."
Caretakers on the island said restoration work on New Jersey's portion will carry a price tag similar to the $200 million project on the northern end. The $6.6 million in state and federal funds is just enough to put a patch over the crumbling structures. The last tenant on Ellis Island was the U.S. Coast Guard, which used it as a training facility. The buildings have been abandoned since 1954.
"Our goal is to add 10 years to the life expectancy of these buildings," said Richard Wells, director of planning and development at the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island National Monuments. "It's conceivable that we'll have a collapse if we don't stop or slow down the rate of decay. If we wait until we get the $200 million, then we might not have anything left to restore." Wells said it will take $200 million for a complete renovation of the buildings on the New Jersey end of the island.
For New Jerseyans, there is something else on the line: pride.
"The New York part is very restored, while the slum part belongs to New Jersey," said Assemblywoman Joan Quigley, a Hudson County Democrat and the prime sponsor of the legislation. "That hurts."
New Jersey Gov. Christine Todd Whitman, who hailed the Supreme Court's 6-3 ruling as a major victory for the Garden State, said saving the structures was crucial.
U.S. Sen. Frank R. Lautenberg, who lobbied Congress hard for the $2 million in federal funds, recently toured the crumbling former women's and children's hospital ward on the south side to push to get the additional money. It was where 355 babies were born, records show.
"More than 12 million people came to this country through Ellis Island, including my parents and grandparents," Lautenberg said. "It's important that our immigrant heritage be preserved."
John Stanley Lusko was born in Bayonne in 1918. At 2, he went with his mother and siblings to a Polish village near Warsaw to visit his grandparents.
They stayed until 1926 before returning home via Ellis Island.
About 80 percent of 12 million immigrants who arrived in the United States were processed within three to five hours at Ellis Island between 1892 and 1954, according to National Park Service records.
The remaining 20 percent, or 2.4 million, were detained for either a legal or medical problem, as Lusko was.
"My mother tried to fool the authorities by putting a towel over my head to hide the measles, but it didn't work and I had to stay behind," he said.
Inside the ward, Lusko said, he sat on his bed and watched the giant steamships with two, three and four stacks that carried the many thousands of immigrants, most of whom arrived from eastern and southern Europe.
His father, an aunt and an uncle left Poland in 1910 to seek economic opportunity in the United States. William Lusko was hired by Standard Oil to clean pipes in the company's Bayonne refinery, then the country's largest, Lusko said.
Once established, the elder Lusko sent for his family to rejoin him, the standard route of many male immigrants.
Some sent back
About 2 percent of immigrants did not pass the health inspection and were given a free one-way ticket back to their port of origin.
"A lot of them were so downtrodden because many families were broken up," Lusko said, recalling watching immigrants file in the Great Hall in the main building to fill out paperwork and undergo physical examinations.
Doctors were stationed at different points along the hallway to check immigrants for diseases, such as trachoma, tuberculosis, physical deformities and mental disorders.
Trachoma, a contagious eye disease that caused blindness and death, was the reason for more than half of the medical detentions. Its discovery meant instant deportation.
If immigrants had any of the diseases proscribed by immigration laws or were too feeble-minded to earn a living, they would be deported. Immigrants with curable diseases such as measles were entitled to up to a month of free medical care at the hospital to get better.
Lusko said it wasn't until he was in grammar school that he learned the symbolism behind the giant statue he stared at from Ellis Island. But it was his life that gave it true meaning. At 21, Lusko went to work painting cars on the assembly line for General Motors in its Linden, N.J., plant in 1939, a job he held for 35 years. From 1941 to 1945, he served in the Army in World War II as a corporal.
After the war, he married Lottie Bozanko from Wilkes-Barre, Pa., and settled in Bayonne. They had one son, John Lusko Jr., now 50, a mechanical engineer who lives in Arizona with his wife and three children.
Like Lusko, his siblings all found jobs in New Jersey and ended up owning homes and raising children.
"I've had a very good life," Lusko said from his shingled home. "America lives up to her promises. Here you had the chance to make a decent living, go to good schools, and better yourself."
Last month Lusko, now a widower, gave back. He mailed a $100 check to an Ellis Island fund to restore the southern buildings. The donation will allow him to have his name engraved on a wall, called the American Immigrant Wall of Honor, that will pay tribute to immigrants processed on the island.
More importantly, he wants to ensure that the buildings remain standing.
"It was a part of my life I will never forget," said Lusko, who was recently diagnosed with lung cancer and is undergoing chemotherapy. His doctors have told him it is treatable, and he remains vibrant. "I can still see those ships."
Pub Date: 12/30/98