NEW YORK, SEPT. 9 -- Ellis Island, the nation's forbidding warehouse of ethnic ideals, swung open its wide doors once again today, this time after the lengthiest and most expensive restoration of any building in U.S. history.
Whereas millions before them braved arduous sea voyages for the chance to pass through the soaring, vaulted Registry Room and into American life, today's carefully selected visitors arrived on Circle Line tour boats, a group so varied it seemed like an immigrant's version of Noah's Ark.
The politicians, led by Vice President Dan Quayle and including Govs. L. Douglas Wilder of Virginia and Jim Florio of New Jersey (whose grandfather Giuseppi came through Ellis Island in 1905) were here. So were celebrities, industrialists, bands, dancers and a choral group that could have been on loan from a United Colors of Benetton commercial, singing "This Is My Country." But in large part the dedication of the Ellis Island Immigration Museum was a somber reflection of the ambivalence of the immigrant experience itself.
"Picture the steamers drawing near," Vice President Quayle said to the 2,300 assembled guests, including 47 who had just been sworn in as new citizens by Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia. "Suddenly hundreds of people rushing to the decks -- picture them searching for the statue in the early morning fog.
"This red brick world of Ellis Island," he continued, standing beneath sharp blue skies at the entrance to the lovingly refurbished Great Hall, "was their gateway, a place of almost mythic transformation. Through one door entered Russians, Greeks, Italians, Jews. Through another door they emerged Americans."
With the perilous and captivating city rising above it from the shore, and the Statue of Liberty standing silent guard only 1,400 feet away, Ellis Island has always been a place of muted glory, where the wildest dreams mingled with desperation and disgrace. The ancestors of more than 100 million people, 40 percent of the country's population, shuffled through the Great Hall before they were permitted to enter the United States. From 1892 to 1924, more than 12 million entered the country through this 27-acre spit of landfill from the New York subway system.
"No English, no money, nothing," remembered Johanne Gentsch-Kusche, who arrived in 1924 from Germany and now lives in Queens. "I had bad eyes, so I was worried all the way that they would never take me."
The Immigration Act of 1924 ended the era of mass immigration, however, and Ellis Island's chief function became as a detention and deportation point for people who had arrived illegally or violated the rules of their admission.
In fact, the image of travelers fleeing misery and deprivation, yearning desperately for the freedom of America, as heard so often and repeated again here today, has been dealt a strong blow by the museum itself. Most who arrived here had at least the price of a steerage ticket, which at $10 was more than many families in the Old World ever dreamed of possessing. Oral histories, vast assemblages of bundled luggage, delicate lace and cotton clothing, tintype photographs and other memorabilia tell a tale of refugees who struggled but were successful enough to escape oppression, whether it was the pogroms of Russia, the famine of Ireland or the stormy wars of Central Europe.
Nor of course did all of America's ancestors pass through these portals, or pass to freedom.
"For some the story began in Africa 300 years ago when a young woman was slapped in chains and brought here against her will in a smelly hold," said Lee Iacocca, who as chairman of the Statue of Liberty-Ellis Island Foundation has now completed an eight-year project to raise $345 million to rescue the two monuments from the rat-infested ruins they had become.
Both Iacocca and the foundation's president, Stephen A. Briganti, stressed that the museum -- which will open to the public officially on Monday -- would honor all of America's immigrants, whether or not their ancestors came to the island or came through some other route.
"I know we've had our ups and downs with immigration," Iacocca said before delivering his brief remarks. "But when you are all done in this great world of ours, who gets to stand up and be counted? It's us. We still take in more people every year than all the industrialized nations of this world."
To honor as many of those people as possible, and to help raise funds for the $156 million effort to restore the facility, Iacocca devised the American Immigrant Wall of Honor, where plaques bearing the names of more than 200,000 immigrants have been mounted. It costs $100 to list a relative's name.
A quick look at any of the bronze plaques tells a visitor all he needs to know about the diversity of Americans: Lang, Langan, Latoszkiewicz, Laventhol, Lavenziano. There are other, more famous names on the wall, all honored by their descendants. William Bradford, who landed not here but at Plymouth Rock in 1620, and Mother Frances Xavier Cabrini, the first American citizen to be canonized. Rudolph Valentino is there, as are Al Jolson and Paul Revere's father.
"We have been stunned by the response," said Briganti, who noted that as many as 20 million people contributed to the restoration of Ellis Island and the Statue of Liberty. "We thought we would get maybe 30,000 names. So far we have 215,000 and we are still receiving contributions."
The restoration campaign has been the most successful of its kind in history, but it created enormous controversy, with some saying the project has made openly commercial objects out of two of the country's most hallowed symbols.
"Yeah, I know -- boy, they hit me pretty hard," said Iacocca. "But these places -- our heritage -- were abandoned, neglected. Where were the critics of fund-raising then? Where have they been for 30 years? These monuments deserve the best, and with the help of the people that's what they got."