The Lazaretto Quarantine Station
Address: Wanamaker Avenue and E. 2nd Street, Essington, PA
Year Built: 1799-1801
Architectural Style: Georgian
Architect: Joseph Bowes
National Register of Historic Places: 1972
Current Use: vacant
Built between 1799 and 1801, the Lazaretto Quarantine Station is the oldest surviving quarantine
facility in the Western Hemisphere, and the sixth oldest in the world. Stately but decaying, empty
since 2000, the Lazaretto stands today as a forgotten monument to an little-known history. The stories that
comprise this history—stories of commerce and politics, suffering and death, medicine and caregiving,
immigration and hope—are the stories of Philadelphia’s and the nation’s growth during the nineteenth
century. This architectural gem is an eerie but beautiful echo of those stories. The Lazaretto served as
the point of entry for all ships and passengers arriving at the Port of Philadelphia, including thousands
of European immigrants, during the century preceding Ellis Island and the other better-known
The City of Philadelphia’s Board of Health erected the Lazaretto to protect its citizenry against
imported epidemics long before the federal government involved itself with such concerns. In 1793,
a yellow fever epidemic devastated Philadelphia, killing 5,000 people (out of a total population of
50,000) in two months. The Philadelphia Board of Health was formed in 1794, and after yellow
fever returned three more times in the late 1790s, it built the Lazaretto at what was perceived to be a
safe distance from the city. (The name “Lazaretto” derives from St. Lazarus, patron saint of lepers.
Maritime quarantine stations known as lazarettos were established in European port cities beginning in
the late 14th and early 15th centuries.)
During the warm weather months, when traffic was heaviest and diseases such as yellow fever and
cholera threatened, all arriving ships, passengers, and cargo were inspected there, and quarantined if
necessary. Vessels and cargo were disinfected, and sick passengers and crew members were treated in
the Lazaretto hospital.
In 1800, the Lazaretto also served as a safe haven for Africans found aboard two illegal slave ships
captured off the coast of Cuba. The African men, women and children were nursed back to health by
the Lazaretto staff, and the Abolition Society of Philadelphia took over their guardianship, according to
research by historian Dona Horowitz-Behrend.
After the quarantine station closed in 1895, the Lazaretto found a second life as the summer
home of the Philadelphia Athletic Club—a suburban country club and sporting retreat for
the city’s elite. World War I brought still a third identity as a flight school and one of the first
seaplane bases in North America. In 1972, it was placed on the National Register of Historic
The seaplane base closed its doors in 2000, and the property was sold to a private developer interested
in building an airport parking facility. In order to save the Lazaretto from demolition, Tinicum
Township purchased the entire site in 2005 and began construction of a large newfire station on the
northern (unbuilt) five acres of the property. The Preservation Alliance of Philadelphia filed suit to stop
the project, which it said threatened the integrity of the historic landmark. The settlement reached in
November 2006 allowed the completion of the firehouse complex and the formation of the preservation
board to watch over the rest of the property.
In February 2012, Tinicum Township announced its plans to move its administrative offices and police
headquarters to the Main Building of the Lazaretto. This will allow grants obtained for a new township
building to be added to grants dedicated to the preservation of the Lazaretto site, which together will
cover more than half of the cost of restoration.
Some Community Stakeholders
Lazaretto Preservation Association of Tinicum Township, Tinicum Township Board of Commissioners, historic preservationists, neighborhood residents
Possible Artistic Uses & Limitations
The Lazaretto is a large preserved building with an abundance of rooms, though most are quite small in
comparison to today’s houses and public buidings and may hold limited opportunity for performance.
There is limited electricity in the building.
Hidden City Philadelphia has secured provisional interest and commitment to participate from the owners or stewards of prospective sites for the 2013 festival. We cannot guarantee final festival participation for any site, as many are subject to transitional forces, such as changes in ownership or stewardship, development, hazmat remediation, public-private jurisdiction, access restrictions and, in some cases, continued physical deterioration.
With that said, we have secured interest and willingness from site owners and stewards to engage in a discovery process with artists, partner organizations, and other stakeholders concerning creative projects and public engagement. The realization of any artistic project for the festival will be the result of a collaborative process with, and eventual collective approval of, Hidden City staff, advisors, community stakeholders, and site owners.
Hidden City’s staff are facilitators and advocates with the goal of bringing about a productive and mutually satisfying relationship between artists and the other stakeholders essential to any creative process located in places where art making is not a regular activity.