Monday, November 1, 2010


The World Monument’s Fund (WMF) had its genesis in 1965 as The International Fund for Monuments but changed its name and direction in 1985 to the World Monuments Fund . I have known the Executive Director, Bonnie Burnham, since 1976 when we both attended the first International Congress on art theft in Paris. She had been with ICOM, The International Council of Museums which was administered by UNESCO. They developed the “UNESCO Agreement”, the first effort made on an international basis, to repatriate works of art to their countries of origin. I, of course, was there as one of many representatives of the collecting community. After becoming Executive Director of IFAR, the International Foundation for Art Research, she was asked to join WMF as Executive Director in 1985 and proceeded to revive a rather sleepy institution.

WMF has an annual benefit dinner which I attended a few weeks ago. On this occasion WMF gave its prestigious Hadrian Award to a worthy benefactor of preservation of the world’s treasured art and architecture. The award is named after the Roman Emperor Hadrian (a.d. 76-138), who was himself concerned with the preservation of outstanding artistic works of his time. For a list of all the recipients go to click here. In an introduction to their many worthy projects Board Chairman. Christopher Ohrstrom stated their credo saying, "A society that has lost touch with it's past is a society that no longer knows who it is...... Because our past is what defines us. It gives us our identity".

WMF publishes every year a “Watch List” of approximately 100 sites that it considers most require attention. It gets directly involved in some of these and joins projects where it can contribute expertise to the local effort. At the moment it has about 150 projects on seven continents, to view click here.

They have not neglected their country of origin and have had projects near both my homes advising, for instance, at the Taos and Hopi Pueblos in the Southwest. To show how WMF works they took a group of us to Ellis Island in New York Harbor and demonstrated how a long term project can begin.

Ellis Island was the principal port of entry into the U.S. between 1892 and 1924 when 12 million immigrants were processed there. The Northside with its Registstry building began its restoration in the 1980’s at a final cost of around 260 million dollars and this is the site we can take the ferry to visit today. But there is a huge territory on the Southside of the Island where the original state of the art hospital complex was built. Having been neglected for many decades it had turned into a veritable jungle. Nature had taken over and literally grown into the buildings coming in with all the elements. It had been a most important part of Ellis Island at the time. It was where all those that showed any sign of physical or mental illness were held until they were thought fit to be admitted into the United States or sent back to where they came from and it is estimated that two to three percent were. Ellis Island became known as “The Island of Hope - The Island of Tears”.

Today, it would cost well over half a billion dollars to restore the Southside and the funds don’t exist for the time being. WMF, however, listed Ellis Island on their “Watch List” both in 1996 and 2006. The 1996 listing helped draw National and International attention to the amount of work that remained to restore the island in its entirety. A member of the Lowes family (Lowes Stores) pitched in with $25,000, which though generous and appreciated was not going to make a big dent in beginning this massive restoration.

Boiling down his impressive curriculum vitae, our tour guide, John H. Stubbs received his advanced training at Columbia University’s Graduate Program for Historic Preservation. In 1980 he started at Beyer Blinder Bell Architects & Plannners which specialized in the world of preservation architecture . The firm was hired from 1981 to 1984 by The U.S. National Park Service to restore the main Registry Building and survey the history and 'as found' conditions of all buildings on the island. This included for example, the original toilets and doorknobs. John Stubbs supervised several skilled teams in this herculean task and they gave those doing the actual restoration of the Northside the “blueprint” for the project which was detailed in an 11 volume report which John edited and wrote a great deal of. In 1990 he was hired by Bonnie Burnham to become WMF’s project manager and oversee their many projects.

He had the idea that they could use the Lowes grant to demonstrate what was possible. They took one small building, the Surgeons offices, as an example and showed how it could be cleared out and mothballed so that things wouldn’t get worse until there was the money to continue on a grander scale.

When this relatively small project was completed WMF again listed the Southside of the island in 2006. Now, more substantial funds started to flow in and with the 7 million dollars raised they could seriously begin to clear and clean up many of the buildings, and board up the windows with slanted slats for air.

Of course, since the Ellis Island project was started 30 years ago the question of how the property on the Southside could be best used and over the years many suggestions have been made. A hotel, a convention center with overnight facilities, a study center for immigration and many more, as well from famous architects such as Frank Lloyd Wright and Philip Johnson. Some of these ideas involved eliminating the original structures but considering the entire island’s landmark designation it is doubtful that these plans would ever be allowed.

Not only was it fascinating seeing new frontiers in the big city and what can be accomplished but thanks to our afternoon with John Stubbs and his enthusiasm, also in a subsequent interview, I do hope to be able to come back to the subject of Ellis Island in my Missives… there is so much more to tell.