Highland Associates is transforming the Ellis Island Museum into a modern visitors center

The New, New Colossus

Highland Associates is transforming the Ellis Island Museum into a modern visitors center

Ellis Island Entrance (Paul Seibert/Courtesy Statue of Liberty Ellis Island Foundation)

The Statue of Liberty-Ellis Island Foundation, a National Park Service affiliate, announced recently that construction has started to transform the National Museum of Immigration into a 21st-century visitors center. The $100 million campaign will enhance the overall museum experience, double the number of immigration records available for public access, and help preserve the historic site for future generations.

The project is led by Highland Associates, in the role of architects; exhibition designer Ralph Applebaum Associates; and Phelps Construction Group, a full service contractor. The announcement comes after a lengthy history of preservation efforts at the historic 27.5-acre landmass.

Great Hall (Paul Seibert/Courtesy Statue of Liberty Ellis Island Foundation)

The states of New York and New Jersey have long fought over who exactly is the rightful heir to Ellis Island. The destination that served as a conduit for the “huddled masses yearning to breathe free” is technically federal land. But that hasn’t stopped New Jersey lawmakers from trying to claim one of New York’s most heralded tourism destinations as their own. In 1997, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that, in fact, 83 percent of Ellis Island is sited on New Jersey territory; and the remaining percentage was New York land.

Ellis Island Main Building under construction circa 1900 (Courtesy Statue of Liberty National Monument and National Park Service)

Despite the contestation, one thing New York and New Jersey officials have agreed on is this: The Ellis Island Museum, a building completed in 1893 by Boring & Tilton, needs work—and lots of it.

After facilitating the migration of 12 million people, the Ellis Island Main Building was in a bad sort of way by the time it was decommissioned in 1954. In 1966, the Ellis Island Main Building was landmarked in the National Register of Historic Places. And in 1971, the island itself was listed in the New Jersey Register of Historic Places. In 1993, the Main Building was designated a New York City landmark; and Beyer Blinder Belle kicked off a series of renovations there.

The Great Hall before restoration circa 1986 (Courtesy Statue of Liberty Ellis Island Foundation)

In the early 2010s, Phelps was brought on to construct an expansion and carry out major structural changes to Ellis Island’s Kitchen and Laundry building. More recently, Highland Associates was tapped by the Statue of Liberty-Ellis Island Foundation to deliver much needed improvements to the 137,000-square-foot historic site. Most of the labor entails updating the Main Immigration Building and the Kitchen and Laundry Building.

New Donor Recognition Wall (Courtesy Statue of Liberty Ellis Island Foundation)
New Immersive Experience (Courtesy Statue of Liberty Ellis Island Foundation)

There, the architects are working with Ralph Applebaum Associates to deliver new exhibits, ADA upgrades to public restrooms, and improvements to the mechanical and life safety systems. With the National Park Service, Phelps will perform structural changes with minimal impact to the buildings.

Baggage Room Rendering (Courtesy Statue of Liberty Ellis Island Foundation)
Records Discovery Center (Courtesy Statue of Liberty-Ellis Island Foundation)

Upon completion, the reimagined museum will offer self-guided tours in 12 different languages. There will be 100,000 square feet of exhibition space across three different floors which give a big picture timeline of the destination. The third floor is dedicated to the Pre-Ellis Years, which tells the landmass’s history between 1790 and 1880. The second floor is indebted to the years that Ellis Island was a full service migration center between 1880 and 1945. And the first level tells Ellis Island’s history through 1945 into the present. In total, the building will contain nearly 100 media pieces, including films, soundscapes, and a theater.

Renovations are anticipated to finish in 2026.