Imagine what the view could have been like, looking out from your penthouse apartment on Ellis Island.
Across the water to the northeast, the towers of Lower Manhattan would stand tall, glistening in the sun. Lady Liberty just to the south would be a large and reassuring presence, while the lush green fields of Governor’s Island would beckon from the east.
As you wandered around on the island’s moving sidewalks, you could pity the New Jerseyans to the west going about their daily lives as you enjoyed your fabulous, futuristic community on an island in the middle of it all.
This is the life you could have lived if the last project ever created by Frank Lloyd Wright, a plan to turn Ellis Island into a community that was part Jetsons-worthy luxury, part proto-live-work colony, had been accepted.
On November 13, 1954, Ellis Island processed the very last immigrant to pass through the island’s proverbial doors (a Norwegian sailor named Arne Peterssen).
The INS had been slowly implementing a pre-screening process in the home countries of all who hoped to try their luck in the United States, and the formerly swamped immigration center had quickly become obsolete.
For 62 years, Ellis Island served as the entry point for millions of immigrants who took their first look at their new country from under the protective gaze of the Statue of Liberty. During its busiest year on record, in 1907, the island processed 1,285,349 people.
Ellis Island’s story started well before international travelers began walking its bureaucratic halls.
In 1808, New York State sold the land to the federal government for $10,000. At that time, the island only encompassed 3.5 acres. Ships that sailed into New York Harbor would dump their ballast in the area, and the island was slowly shaped into the 27-acre site that it is today.
From there, it became, “a picnic ground for Dutch settlers, a gallows site for the pirate Gibbs in 1841, the site of an old fort in the harbor defenses and a munitions storage place during the last century,” according to a piece written in the New York Herald Tribune on the day the island “closed.”
In 1954, after millions of feet had traversed the land and it was time for Ellis Island to start the next chapter of its life, the feds shut the immigration station down hoping that another government entity would take it over—ideally the states of New Jersey or New York, or even neighboring New York City.
Proposals for new public uses quickly started coming in. It could serve as a juvenile detention center, a home for homeless men and recovering alcoholics, an ethnic museum, a liberal arts college or an international university, a home for the elderly, or even an immigration museum.
On December 2, 1956, the New York Herald Tribune published a cartoon offering a series of illustrated suggestions (some that New Yorkers might still find relevant) on “What to do with Ellis Island.”
The cartoonist suggested they could “transplant all the ragweed there,” “send Pied Piper Presley and all his fans there to rock ’n’ roll,” “dig a graveyard for B films to keep them off of TV,” “use it as a repository for dentists’ old magazines,” or “turn it over to the sidewalk peddlers and let them hawk.”
Over the next eleven years, the government struggled with the property that they just couldn’t seem to get rid of (although, they didn’t seem desperate enough to lower their asking price, either).
Their plans hit a major snag when their target buyers failed to offer legitimate proposals (or any signs of money) to take the land off the feds’ hands. Nearly a decade later, the debate was still raging and New York City’s then-mayor explained his position before a Senate subcommittee.
He told the Senators, according to a 1962 piece in the New York Herald Tribune, that “the city not only did not want to buy the island, but had no preference to express on more than a dozen proposals offered by other private and public agencies.”
He admitted that the island was “politically, geographically and historically a part of New York City,’ [but] it would be too expensive to rehabilitate for city use and too inaccessible for the city’s employees.”
And that was the crux of the issue: Ellis Island was too damn expensive.
The government must have had an inkling that this might happen because they had a back-up plan. If that states wouldn’t shell out, they would open the bidding to private citizens. Who wouldn’t want their very own island in New York Harbor?
This idea was originally implemented on September 14, 1956, but it was quickly squashed 11 days later by President Eisenhower after a bout of public protests. He gave the issue a year and a half reprieve, but when the public offers stayed scarce, Ellis Island went back on the market. On February 15, 1958, the bidding period officially opened.
Twenty-one private bids came in for the island. In a move that was allegedly more marketing ploy than social justice stand, a Newark group called the Addicts Redeemable offered $24.12 “in the form of trinkets, baubles and cloth to represent the alleged original purchase price of Manhattan from the Indians.”
John Schell of Frenchtown, NJ, had a more ethical idea when he proposed $24 to “give Ellis Island back to the Indians as a non-profit corporation to be known as the American Indian Memorial.”
The highest bid was $201,000 to turn the land into a resort and cultural center. The lowest was five cents from one Aaron Dorfman of Philadelphia.
“I feel that I have given the government plenty of money for nothing in taxes and therefore I feel the government should pick bids according to how they feel and not any particular highest bidder. I would use the island to build a mansion for myself to live as I like water and like to watch ships passing by,” Dorfman said in a bid to achieve every retiree’s dream.
None of the bids came close to the $6,326,996 that the government said they had invested in the property, and, two months later, they rejected them all (much to the dismay of the high bidder, who thought not granting him the property was resoundingly unfair).
After another few years of stagnated attempts to offload the abandoned land, bids were reopened to the public. In 1962, two media executives from NBC, Elwood M. Doudt and Jerry Damon placed their offer.
Three years earlier, the two men had come up with a dream business plan. They wanted to create “an entirely new, complete and independent prototype city of the future…that would be incorporated into a separate municipality.” Their dream architect for the project was Frank Lloyd Wright. His response to their letter: “Your Ellis Island project is virtually made to order for me.”
Six days before Wright was scheduled to meet with the NBC execs at the Plaza Hotel, the 91 year old died on April 9, 1959. Over the course of his life, he had completed 500 projects and designed around 500 more that were never built. What became known as the Key Project would be one of the last of the projects that was never realized.
Wright may not have made that important meeting, but he had already started thinking about the concept for this dream city.
He left behind conceptual sketches of his idea—one on a napkin from the Plaza hotel—and Doudt and Damon turned those into formal plans. At an estimated cost of $100 million, Wright’s design became known as the Key Project because “the island represented the key to freedom and opportunity for so many,” as Debra Pickrel wrote in Metropolis Magazine.
What Wright proposed was a city of the future. On the square, grassy foundation of Ellis Island, Wright placed another grassy round second level in something of a large-scale Lazy Susan that hovered over the island.
On top of that piece would sit everything a modern community could ever need. Apartments were situated in towers that had long suspension cables extending from their roofs down to the edge of the island.
Visitors could stay at the 500-room hotel, while glass-domed structures dotted around the island would house a theater, planetarium, nightclubs, restaurants, shops, banks, a hospital, a library, a sports stadium, a church, and more.
A swimming pool was cordoned off in the sea, moving sidewalks were placed around the community, and up to 450 boats could dock on the sides of the island under cover from the top piece of land.
“It’s incredible. It’s a little nuts,” Sam Lubell, co-author of Never Built New York, told The Daily Beast. “It’s sort of the part of Frank Lloyd Wright’s career where he had really been seduced by futurism, and some of it’s a little over the top, but it’s also extremely interesting and intricate and kind of wonderful, something that never gets old this whole idea of ebullient futurism.”
The plans reward a second and a third glance to take in the interesting, somewhat outlandish ideas Wright proposed. But it’s not just a wacky design; it’s a planned community that may have actually worked.
“It looks incredibly crazy, but actually when you look at how it’s laid out, it’s actually quite smart, which is not surprising because he was a master in a lot of ways about planning spaces,” Lubell said. “He designed everything on it. He designed the boats that were going to be coming back and forth, he designed the piers…I think planning-wise it was actually quite well thought out. Aesthetically it’s just so futuristic that it looks kind of insane.”
Sadly, Frank Lloyd Wright’s final project joined the long list of Ellis Island rejects. In 1965, in what was probably a fairly evident move from the very beginning, Ellis Island became a national monument. Its long-time purpose to serve the public was preserved, but it was done at the cost of denying the world another masterpiece—the last masterpiece—by Frank Lloyd Wright.
“He was always ahead of his time, even in the 50s, Lubell said. “The 50s compared to now…he was still ahead of the time.”