Mission + History

Keepers of the Flame

In 1982, President Ronald Reagan asked Lee Iacocca, then Chairman of the Chrysler Corporation, to head a private sector effort to raise funds for the restoration and preservation of the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island for their respective centennials. The Statue of Liberty-Ellis Island Foundation (SOLEIF) was founded.

The Foundation’s fundraising drive sparked a dramatic response. The American people contributed hundreds of millions of dollars to the repair, restoration, and maintenance of these two great monuments to freedom. All funds for the Foundation’s projects have come from the public. No government funds have been used.

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Restoring the Statue of Liberty

The Foundation, working with its public partner, the U.S. Department of Interior/National Park Service, first tackled the restoration of the Statue of Liberty. A century of weather, pollution, and sightseeing had left Lady Liberty’s torch in need of replacement, her crown’s rays in need of strengthening, and pieces of her gown, hair and face in need of repairs. An army of architects, historians, engineers, and almost 1,000 laborers embarked on the project — which also involved the installation of new elevators and an informative exhibit in the Statue’s base.

July 4, 1986 saw a gala four-day event celebrating and unveiling the restoration. Fireworks filled the night skies and tall ships flocked New York Harbor. “Liberty Weekend,” attended by President Reagan and President Francois Mitterand of France, was broadcast to 1.5 billion people in 51 countries. The Foundation, the National Park Service, and the American people had made history with the most successful public-private partnership in the history of the United States.

Restoring Ellis Island

The Foundation then turned its attention to the restoration of Ellis Island – the largest historical restoration in U.S. history. Ellis Island, our most potent symbol of the American immigrant experience, had deteriorated significantly. Again, the American people responded with passion and generosity.

When the Island opened to the public in September of 1990 – two years ahead of schedule – it unveiled the world-class Ellis Island Immigration Museum. The Foundation went on to restored two more buildings during the ’90s.

In 2001, the Foundation unveiled The American Family Immigration History Center. This unprecedented initiative made Ellis Island passenger arrival records available online for the first time. Professional genealogists and those just curious about their ancestry flocked to the site to uncover details about their family history. The database has since been expanded, now including nearly 65 million records and covers the years 1820 through 1957.  SOLEIF also created the Family History Center on Ellis Island, where research experts provide visitors with tips for utilizing the database.

The Foundation later oversaw a major initiative to broaden the Museum’s content to tell the entire story of American immigration. With this comprehensive expansion, the Museum was renamed the “Ellis Island National Museum of Immigration.”

The pre-Ellis Island galleries, “Journeys: The Peopling of America – 1550s-1890,” opened in 2011, explore the stories of the earliest arrivals including Native Americans, those who arrived against their will, and immigration during the Colonial and Victorian eras. The post-Ellis Island wing, “The Journey: New Eras of Immigration,” opened in 2015, focuses on immigration from 1954 to present times, reflecting the rapid pace of technological progress that has characterized migration since World War II and the challenges and opportunities faced by immigrants in the modern world.