Between 1892 and 1954, nearly 17 million immigrants poured through Ellis Island's main building, many hoping to make their mark in the New World. Now, as workers restore the gateway's faded elegance, a conservator is preserving the marks some immigrants made on Ellis Island.

Christy Cunningham Adams, an art preservationist from Boston, has spent much of the past three years stripping layers of old plaster and paint to find old graffiti."Giuseppe and Achille came to the Battery the day of the 18th of May, Saturday, 1901," one Giuseppe or Achille wrote in Italian on a column in what had been a dining hall.

Adams wrapped the column in rice paper, gauze and resin to preserve the surface covered with drawings, poems and signatures.

Workers have discovered about 400 square feet of graffiti-covered surfaces in the course of restoring the Main Building.

Restoration work began on the island in 1984 and is expected to be completed later this year. The Ellis Island Immigration Museum is scheduled to open in 1990. Some examples of graffiti are being removed from the wall for display in a gallery.

The main building "was designed as a very grand, gracious, elegant receiving place," Adams said.

From the water, the four cupolas on the corner of the building create the impression of a floating palace. The vaulted ceiling of the Great Hall - the second-floor registry room - generates a sense of expectation and a hint of the anxiety people may have felt as they waited to be processed.

"It was a very scary place," Adams said. "Some of the graffiti that we have been able to decipher does reflect that panic, that despair."

One Italian immigrant wrote: "Damned be the day that I left my homeland and country."

"It tends to be in places either where they were asked to wait or where they were detained," Adams said.

But beyond expressions of anger or frustration, the graffiti scrawls reflect a far more basic need: to tell the world of one's existence. "Graffiti aren't necessarily a message to anyone, but the planting, sowing your name in time," Adams said.

So must Pietro Mecio have thought when he signed his name on Aug. 31, 1901.

Some left messages, or pictures of boats, birds, people. Others simply put their hand to the wall and drew its outline, incontestable evidence that they were there.

Adams said she uses the same tools to restore graffiti that she uses to restore old paintings. Chemical reactions between lime in the walls and sea air have crystallized the plaster, "so the graffiti have been encapsulated in the surface of the wall."

The challenge in restoring graffiti comes in putting the words and images in context. "It's just not easy to know when it's done," Adams said. "It's new to everybody - preservation of graffiti."

Adams has stripped one section of wall to graffiti. She has left black paint and old plaster on the strip of wall above it. The second band ends abruptly where new plaster starts.

"Seeing it like this, you see all the things the building's been through."