Angel Island Hospital Gets Makeover, After State Short of Total Disrepair

An aging hospital building on Angel Island, where a million immigrants were detained between 1910 and 1940, is getting a new life, after nearly reaching a state just short of total disrepair.

The hospital is a survivor of the era when the island served as a detention center for immigrants entering the U.S. from some 80 countries including Japan, China and Germany. But while the island’s old barracks have since been restored and used as an interpretive center hosting thousands of visitors, the hospital sat slowly decaying and listing toward ruin.

“This building was a beautiful ruin before we were able to save it,” said Katherine Toy, director of the Angel Island Immigration Station Foundation. “This building was very close to being lost forever.”

Toy’s group worked with California State Parks to raise the funds needed to restore the hospital, which over the years has consumed about $40 million. The restoration work is bringing the building back to its original condition at a time when it housed everything from deaths to births.

Toy recently walked through the building where rooms ranged from a state of raw wood slats to sleekly plastered and painted rooms in an austere white harkening back to its days as a medical facility.

 The work is also restoring a pair of staircases that once served as segregated entrances for “Asians” and “non-Asians." Toy said the restoration work uncovered one of the staircases that had since been boarded up. She said segregated entrances were only used for a couple years before the practice ended.

“Angel Island really represented a gate-keeping experience for immigration,” Toy said. “It was built to keep people out of the country really.”

The building’s architecture reflected a period of medical practice occasionally based on some dodgy theories. Toy pointed to the ceiling of a patients’ room where the ceiling’s corners were rounded off. The thinking of the time was that germs would get trapped in cornered ceiling — hence the curves.

A surgery room had tiled floors and a crescent shape with windows that faced out to the bay. The building’s old kitchen is being reimagined as a catering kitchen for visitors and events. A vast room which once housed patients will become a conference room. A newly installed elevator is one of the few obvious nods to the modern world which evolved beyond the island's shores.

  A room where windows open to sweeping views of the bay will become a reflection room where visitors can look up their genealogy on computer work stations, or simply sit and ponder the island’s experience and that of thousands of immigrants whose dreams of coming to the U.S. first landed them in the isolated station.

"You’re filled with these ideas," said State Park Ranger Ben Fenkell who has lived on the island for years, "you’ve come over on these hopes and dreams and the immigration station is your first experience."

But Toy hopes the hospital will go beyond the experience of a stunning nature-laden island — or even just the history of the station. She hopes a visit to the hospital will touch-off a conversation about the immigration experience, a subject that has raged during the recent presidential election.

“We as a country have always had, I think kind of a tension in our relationship to immigrants and ourselves as an immigrant nation,” Toy said. “That tension continues today.”

The hospital is scheduled to open in early 2018. Once open it may hold the distinction as the only hospital people will look forward to visiting.

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