Gateway to hope and heartache

First a point of entry for immigrants, later a makeshift prison, this East Boston building is slated to be razed

By Andrew Ryan
Globe Staff / April 11, 2010

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Tunney Lee arrived in America on a dreary day in 1938, a 7-year-old at the railing of a steamship gazing up at the Custom House Tower, an ivory-colored beacon soaring above Boston.

If seeing the city’s tallest skyscraper filled Lee with hope, a low-slung building on an East Boston wharf reminded him who he was: a boy, just 3 feet 9 inches, emigrating from China, the target of America’s strictest immigration quotas. After a 59-question interrogation by immigration officers, he signed his name with an X.

“I don’t remember being scared,’’ said Lee, now 78. “But I must have been.’’

Like tens of thousands of immigrants over three decades, Lee survived the intense scrutiny of the East Boston Immigration Station, emerged onto nearby Marginal Street, and started a new life in the United States. For untold others, the building represented the antithesis of freedom. In the hysteria after Pearl Harbor, it became a detention center for local Germans and Japanese, a gateway to faraway internment camps.

The setting for so much human drama has since endured a half-century of neglect and van dalism. Decaying and sinking into the harbor, the yellow brick building has been targeted for demolition by its owner, the Massachusetts Port Authority. But before Massport can unleash the wrecking ball, the Boston Landmarks Commission is reviewing the structure’s historic significance. Its findings, expected at the end of this month, could prompt city officials to delay or halt the razing.

“It’s our Ellis Island,’’ said Lee, a professor who teaches urban planning at Massachusetts Institute of Technology. “I think of the memories of that building in terms of the people. The ghosts. That period of America’s history and Boston’s history has been forgotten.’’

The building closed as an immigration station in 1954 and repeatedly changed owners afterward, housing a radiator factory and a storeroom for TWA Airlines. Eventually it became a dumping place for junk.

Today the structure is a putrid and rotting shell that reeks of urine and the dank odor of a flooded basement. Steady drips of water echo as they land on a fetid mattress covered in chunks of plaster. Pigeons flutter in rafters and rusted fluorescent lights sway in the salty air that blows through broken windows. Graffiti scrawled in red spray paint says, “Tear it down!!’’

Evidence of the building’s original function can be seen on brick pillars, scribbled in what looks like pencil. “Henry O’Toole, Dublin, Ireland, 1937,’’ says one note. “Manuel G. Orfao, Portugal,’’ reads another. A third says: “H.A. Calderon, Buenos Aires.’’ Others mention Moscow, Rotterdam, Venezuela, and Dundee, Scotland.

“There are a lot of stories that went on at that place that need to be told — that deserve to be told,’’ said Vincent J. Cannato, a professor of history at the University of Massachusetts Boston.

The stories include that of Alice Gertrude Chase, a 19-year-old English woman who jilted her husband-to-be in 1920 when she changed her mind on a steamship from Liverpool; of two Armenian girls — Vartouhi Hovsepian and Gulenia Kehyayan — who arrived in 1926, and had helped weave a rug used in the East Room of the White House during President Calvin Coolidge’s administration.

There were well-known names who came through its doors, including the infamous Italian huckster Charles Ponzi, who passed through in 1934 on his way out of the country. But most were anonymous faces who faded into the fabric of America, and changed it. Their stories became ours.

“Immigration is human work,’’ Mary H. Ward, then Boston’s district immigration commissioner, said in 1935. “People trust us with their most guarded secrets.’’

The building had a cafeteria, dormitories for men and women, a roof garden for exercise, and a player piano. The Chinese, owing to the prejudices of the time, were made to use separate quarters and washrooms. Two large rooms with benches hosted interminable card games, with “black and white, yellow and brown’’ gathered around tables together even though “they can’t speak a word to each other,’’ according to a 1922 account, which described the facility as the “vestibule’’ where immigrants knocked for entry into “the Great American house.’’

The role of the East Boston Immigration Station differed significantly from New York’s Ellis Island, which served as the portal for more than 12 million immigrants. The East Boston station opened almost three decades later, in 1920, when the tidal wave of newcomers had begun to ebb. The early surge of Irish and Germans had long passed, and war staunched the later flood from Southern and Eastern Europe. By then, US immigration policy emphasized restrictions and quotas.

In Boston, inspectors processed immigrants at steamship docks and only brought to the immigration station those who required a secondary interview or had issues with their paperwork or other problems, according to Marian L. Smith, a long-time historian for the federal immigration service. Of the 230,000 legal immigrants granted entry through Boston during the station’s lifetime, perhaps 50,000 passed through the facility. Those totals don’t include the countless stowaways, those who were turned away, or deportees.

And then World War II changed everything.

On April 1, 1941, authorities in Boston Harbor seized two ships — one Italian, one German — and imprisoned the crews in the station. Boston immigration officials sent word weeks later to the US Justice Department about plans for half-inch thick metal bars to be welded on the station’s windows and skylights, the installation of steel doors with “bullet proof, prison-type hardware,’’ and the building of a chain-link cage over the roof. Boston immigration officers were told to expect “a large number of aliens.’’

The attack on Pearl Harbor prompted the arrest of some local Japanese, Italians, and Germans, who were dragged into East Boston for temporary imprisonment.

One was Karl Otto Heinrich Lange, a 39-year-old German-born physicist and renowned meteorologist at Harvard’s Blue Hill Observatory who had been living in the United State since 1931. Federal agents also grabbed a German-born artist named Paul Lameyer out of his Newbury Street apartment, even though he had lived here for almost two decades.

“This wasn’t invented at Guantanamo. This has happened before, many times,’’ said Lameyer’s grandson, Randy Houser, of Charleston, S.C., who has visited the immigration station. “In your city, this is where it happened. This is the place where people were held without habeas corpus.’’

Lameyer spent several months in East Boston before bouncing to internment camps in Long Island, Maryland, Tennessee, and finally North Dakota. He was released in May 1945 and died in 1960. His etchings of bucolic New England still hang in the Childs Gallery on Newbury Street.

“It’s one of those things we probably want to forget,’’ said Houser, who has spent a decade obtaining records about his grandfather’s ordeal. “I think that’s why it’s been kind of a secret for 50 years.’’

The same fate ensnared Max Ebel, a 23-year-old German-born furniture maker living in Jamaica Plain seized in September 1942. Ebel, who died in 2007, reluctantly told his family about his four months in East Boston: the Japanese man he helped save who was keeled over a toilet, bleeding from gashes on his neck where he had tried to slit his own throat; the gift of a rosary from a fellow detainee who had lost his faith; his vivid memory of breathing the sea air in the fenced exercise yard on the roof.

“He said he felt sort of like a caged animal when he walked on the top,’’ said his daughter Karen Ebel of New London, N.H. She said of the building, “I don’t think it should be torn down.’’

Massport, which took ownership in 1985, wants to raze the structure “for safety reasons,’’ said spokesman Matthew Brelis, and would probably use the land for boat repair and maintenance. The agency has hired a consultant to document the building’s historic significance; Massport would not make the consultant available for interviews.

Some East Boston residents are fighting to save the immigration station. Other locals say the decrepit building is too far gone.

Tunney Lee says saving the structure may be impractical.

“But it would be important to leave something on that site,’’ Lee said. “They shouldn’t forget that a substantial number of people passed through there, ancestors of people who live here now.

“Ellis Island became a monument — you can take a ferry out to see it,’’ he continued. “But East Boston sort of faded out of everybody’s memory.’’

Ann Silvio of the Globe Staff contributed to this report.

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