The historic terminal at Liberty State Park, where millions of immigrants set off for their new lives in America, reopened yesterday after a nearly four-year, $20 million restoration job.
Slammed by Hurricane Sandy in October 2012, the 125-year-old Central Railroad Terminal closed after the storm, when an 11-foot flood surge and winds shattered windows, tore doors off hinges, and badly damaged the roof and skylights.
Its reopening marked a milestone for the state’s most popular park, with more than 4 million visitors annually, an urban space often described as the gem of New Jersey’s park system and a fitting complement to the national historic landmarks of Ellis Island and the Statue of Liberty.
Department of Environmental Commissioner Bob Martin called the reopening a momentous occasion. “The efforts that went into restoring this landmark are nothing short of miraculous and are testimony to our state’s resolve to rebuild from superstorm Sandy,’’ he said.
Liberty State Park Superintendent Rob Rodriguez, then one year into his job, recalled returning to the park the day after the storm “The next day was something out of a movie,’’ he said. “No one anticipated an 11-foot storm surge.’’
“It was like a giant washing machine went through — everything tossed about, over the floors and doors, windows and drywalls blown out,’’ he said. “Today, the building is fully accessible. The public can come and admire its Romanesque-style architecture and take a step back in time — and perhaps even walk in the footsteps of their grandparents or great-grandparents.’’
What they will not see is a conference center and nearby hotel. Plans to commercialize certain parts of the facility were shelved by the department earlier this year after enormous opposition from advocates, lawmakers, and Jersey City officials.
Instead, the building will retain its historic nature, from its red brick exterior to the three-story-high cupola and iron latticework holding up the roof and skylights. Inside, visitors can view historic displays and buy ferry tickets to Ellis Island and the Statue of Liberty.
The restoration effort involved more than 50 subcontractors over the past three years, according to Rodriguez
The state’s corporate business tax funded $11.3 million of the work, and an insurance policy kicked in nearly $5 million. A National Park Service Sandy Disaster Relief grant provided $2 million and the Federal Emergency Management Agency provided $1 million. The park’s operating fund kicked in $576,00.
The terminal opened in 1889, at one time serving as the largest rail hub in the New York metropolitan area. Of the up to 17 million immigrants who passed through Ellis Island, two-thirds headed to new lives on trains from the terminal, according to Jon Luk, deputy superintendent of the park.
“It’s an important part of American history,’’ said Sam Pesin, president of the Friends of Liberty State Park, who was at the event but not asked to speak. Pesin was glad the terminal is retaining its historic character and not being converted into a private enterprise.
“Hopefully, it will be a turning point where politicians and developers will know there will be a firestorm if there is another move to privatize it,’’ Pesin said.