19 December 2012

Lower East Side Tenement Museum

A Special Installment of “A Helluva Town”

[I didn’t really plan it, but I seem to have started an occasional series articles on New York City tourist sites.  I’ve written about the High Line Park, our “park in the sky” (10 October), and Governors Island, a floating park in New York Harbor (19 November).  I’ve also covered a number of New York peculiarities, including sites that might interest a visitor, in my collection of shorts called “A Helluva Town” (15 & 18 August 2011, 9 January 2012).  Now I’m going to publish an article on another place in the city that I think is either unique or nearly so, the Lower East Side Tenement Museum, a restored (though not by much) 19th-century apartment building in the part of downtown Manhattan that has been home to newly-arrived immigrants for two centuries.  One afternoon last April, when my mom was here for a birthday visit, we rode down to have a look at this still-new (and, as far as I can tell, relatively unknown) museum of New York City’s (and America’s) immigration experience.]

97 Orchard Street, on Manhattan’s Lower East Side, is an unprepossessing building.  If you walked down Orchard Street back in 1997 and passed the 6-floor red-brick tenement, you probably wouldn’t even turn your head, except maybe to have a passing glance in the windows of the stores on the stoop level or the basement.  If you did, you’d notice, perhaps, that the building was old (after September 1992 there was a plaque identifying it as a National Historic Landmark and putting its construction date as 1863) and, except for the shops, empty.  It would have been exactly like many others in LES, buildings built between the middle of the 19th century and the years between the World Wars, some of them still occupied, others abandoned and derelict.  A haunt for bargain-hunters—its fabric and notion shops and upholsters have been a treasury for costume and set designers for decades—and seekers of echt Jewish deli and dairy cuisine aimed for the neighborhood.  I may well have passed by the building myself back in the late ’70s or early ’80s because aside from the fabric stores along Orchard Street, it was also home to shops that custom fit sheets and made and repaired umbrellas.  Generally speaking, however, it wasn’t a tourist area.  Little of LES was slated for gentrification.

In 1984, historian and social activist Ruth Abram, the first president of the Lower East Side Tenement Museum, came up with the idea of a museum to focus on the American immigrant story that would stress tolerance and understanding.  Three years later, looking for office space for her new project, she happened on the largely abandoned building at 97 Orchard Street.  Feeling as if she’d come across a time capsule, the sense that the building had been sealed up with its history for half a century, Abram knew she’d found a perfect home for her vision.  When the building was opened, Abram found that everything was exactly the way it had been when the last landlord sealed it up.  It was just like an urban Pompeii, a pharaoh’s tomb for New York City’s immigrant past.   

The first two apartments, the second-floor homes of the Gumpertzes (1870s) and the Baldizzis (1930s), were opened to the public in 1992.  On 19 April 1994, the building was designated a National Historic Landmark and on 12 November 1998, it was labeled a National Trust Historic Site associated with the National Park Service.  The Italianate building, however, is owned and operated by the Lower East Side Tenement Museum, a non-governmental agency.  The museum serves about 170,000 visitors a year, of whom about 40,000 are students. 

Restoration has been minimal, mostly structural to shore up floors and staircases that were in danger of collapse from age and neglect, and, as far as the eye is concerned, stripping away much of the accumulated layers of flooring and wall coverings down to the oldest level to show what the building was like in its early years.  The researchers, preservers, and restorers at the Lower East Side Tenement Museum included a demographer, genealogist, historian, urban archeologist, architectural historian, and wallpaper conservator.  Beneath the layers of wallpaper—as many as 15 or 20 layers—and floor coverings, objects, notes written on the walls, and other artifacts have been uncovered giving glimpses into the world of the tenants of 97 Orchard Street.  More than 1,500 items, including kitchen utensils, toys, cosmetics, medicine vials, soda and milk bottles, family and business papers, letters, newspapers, buttons, coins, fabric scraps, and so on, were found in the building as it was restored, many under the flooring or in the mailboxes.  The museum conducted an archaeological dig in the rear yard and historians and genealogists have tracked down the outlines and even many details of the building’s occupants, examining photographs, diaries, and letters to reveal the stories of the real people who lived at the tenement over its 72-year history as an apartment building.  (The most well-known of the tenants at 97 Orchard was Sam Jaffe, the late actor who played the title role in Gunga Din in 1939, but whom I’ll always remember from my childhood as Dr. Zorba, the title character’s boss on the 1961-65 TV series Ben Casey.  Jaffe, who was also featured in one of my favorite moves, the 1951 original version of The Day the Earth Stood Still, was born in the building in 1891.) 

A tenement, when 97 Orchard Street was built, wasn’t the slum building the word conjures today.  It was simply a word that meant a building with multiple dwellings rented to “more than three families living independently of one another and doing their own cooking upon the premises,” as New York’s Tenement House Act of 1867 defined it.  This differentiated it, I suppose, from a boarding house or a rented room in someone’s home.  The original tenement houses, which began to appear in the 1840s and ’50s, weren’t intended to be slums, though they were deliberately inexpensively built with few, if any, amenities to keep down costs and quickly became associated with poor tenants and shoddy conditions.  The word became derogatory and newer accommodations became known as ‘apartment houses’ instead, until that phrase was seen as ordinary and upscale home seekers began flocking to ‘condos’ and ‘co-ops.’

The building at 97 Orchard Street, valued at about $8,000 when it was erected, was, in fact, nicer than many others built at around the same time.  In fact, the owner himself, tailor Lukas Glockner, chose to live there, having moved from St. Mark’s Place in what is now the East Village.  There was no indoor plumbing yet, but that was common in the 1860s; the backyard privies were clean and the stairs, while narrow and unlit (also common), were well-built.  Interior rooms had no windows, but there were transoms that brought in light from the front and back windows; a later law required these small windows but the ones at 97 Orchard seem to have been original construction.  The front and rear windows also let in more air than was usual for mid-19th-century tenements.

Between its construction by Glockner, a Saxon immigrant who fled the European unrest of 1848, in the middle of the Civil War and 1935, on the eve of World War II (which began in Europe in 1939), 97 Orchard Street was home to some 7,000 tenants, mostly families, from over 20 different countries.   (LES wasn’t David Dinkins’s “gorgeous mosaic”; it was the original melting pot.  Russians, Italians, Germans, Letts, Irish, Poles, and scores of other nationalities, were all crowded together in the same buildings on the same few blocks—and they came out Americans as their children and grandchildren moved on.  Later Chinese, Vietnamese, Caribbeans, Latin Americans occupied these same tenements in a continuing cycle.)  Glockner lived on the second floor and rented the rest of the building out.  There are 22 apartments in the building which has five stories above street level, starting with a stoop level a short flight of stairs up, and a basement whose separate entrance is a few steps below the sidewalk.  The basement originally housed a saloon and restaurant run by the Schneider family from Bavaria from 1864 to 1886.  (The museum has plans to “reopen” Schneider’s saloon in the future.)  Over time, the building was altered to meet the changing laws of the city and the basement was converted into two apartments and then into commercial space; the four stoop-level apartments also became stores; one of the rear units was Professor Dora Meltzer's Palmistry Studio at the turn of the 20th century (and which the Tenement Museum may also open to tourists).  When the rest of the building was vacated, these spaces remained occupied.

There are four apartments per floor in the building, two in front and two in the rear.  Between the two north and two south dwellings runs the dark, narrow corridor and staircase.  Each apartment has three rooms, a large front room (11 x 12½ feet), called the living room or parlor, a kitchen, and a tiny bedroom (8½ square feet).  Only the front room gets direct sunlight and outside air (the rear units looked out over the backyard).  The apartments, which typically housed families of six or seven, cover about 325 square feet.  The Confino family who moved onto the fifth floor in 1913, had ten family members at 97 Orchard Street, the largest family to live in the tenement.  As you might imagine, sleeping arrangements took some careful and clever maneuvering.  There’s no toilet or bathroom—privies were originally located in the rear yard—and no running water in the apartments.  Heat was supplied by the kitchen fireplace, which burned either coal or wood.  (Gas was piped in later.)  Coal-burning stoves, which may have been the apartment’s source of heat as well, had to be purchased by the tenants. 

Modernizations were made periodically: indoor plumbing was brought in, but only cold water ran into the apartments—the original meaning of “cold-water flat”—and there were two toilets on each floor; an airshaft was created to provide the interior rooms with light and air; gas was installed around 1905 and then electricity sometime in the early 1920s.  (Interestingly, an exterior fire escape was required by an 1862 law, so the tenement was built with one, though the present structure, a replica of the original, was mounted by the museum in 1997.)  These improvements were costly to the landlord, cutting into his rental profits, and in 1935, instead of continuing the process, then-owner Gottlieb Helpern, whose family continued to own the building until 1988, evicted the residents.  The upper floors were closed off and boarded up; only the commercial shops in the basement and the stoop level remained open.  (Even today, with the museum’s renovations, parts of the upper floors are still closed.)  97 Orchard stayed in that state of suspended animation until 1988 when the East Side Tenement Museum took control of the premises.  Though it slowly deteriorated as unoccupied buildings tend to, 97 Orchard had in a way become the amber that’s preserved a glimpse back into the way New York’s immigrants lived in the last third of the 19th and first third of the 20th centuries.

Visitors can only enter 97 Orchard with a tour group and a guide from the museum.  There are three different way to visit the Tenement Museum: take a tour the building and see the restored apartments, including period-accurate furnishings, of several residents from different decades; meet some of the building’s residents portrayed by costumed “interpreters”; or  take a walking tour of the neighborhood and learn about the Lower East Side and the life of the immigrants that shaped its culture.  (Unfortunately, because of the limitations of the 150-year-old structure, the building itself isn’t wheel-chair accessible.  The neighborhood tour, however, is fully accessible to wheelchairs.) 

To visit the building, there are six different tours, each one with a different focus.  In “Exploring 97 Orchard Street,” the museum guide takes you behind the scenes to display the “layers of history” revealed by the building’s many alterations and improvements.  The tour shows how the restorers stripped away the overlays of paint and wallpapers to find ever-older appearances of the tenement and how these revelations have been interpreted by “urban archeologists.”  (This tour covers parts of the first, second, and fourth floors of the tenement.  Keep in mind that the first, or stoop, floor is nine steps above street level.)

“Irish Outsiders” uses period-appropriate objects in the home (though not original to the family or the building) to tell the story of the Moores, Irish Catholics on the fourth floor who suffered the malnutrition death of five-year-old Agnes in 1869.  The tour compares the Moore’s efforts to keep their family healthy with those of the Katz family, Jewish immigrants from Russia who lived at 97 Orchard in the 1920s and ’30s. 

With “Sweatshop Workers,” visitors experience the lives of the Levine and Rogarshevsky families on the third floor.  At the turn of the 20th century, the Polish immigrant Levines, who arrived in 1870, ran a dressmaking shop in their home, a common practice in LES, and Abraham Rogarshevsky, who, with his large family from Lithuania moved into 97 Orchard in 1901, worked as a presser in a garment workshop in the first decades of the 20th century.  The Rogarshevskys later changed their name to Rosenthal.

In “Hard Times,” visitors learn how immigrants living at 97 Orchard survived the economic depressions of the era, starting with the Gumpertz family on the second floor, German Jews whose patriarch, Julius, disappeared during the Panic (stock market crash) of 1873.  He worked cutting heels for Levi’s cobbler shop nearby and left for work one October morning in 1874 and never came home, leaving Nathalia, his wife, to work as a dressmaker to support their children.  The tour then visits the second-floor apartment of the Sicilian-Catholic Baldizzi family who lived in the tenement during the Great Depression of the 1930s.  Adolfo tried to find work as a mason while his wife, Rosaria, did piece work sewing at home, but like so many in those years, the Baldizzis survived on welfare.  Adolfo and Rosaria’s daughter Josephine was located by museum historians and helped restore the Baldizzis’ apartment. 

(The “Hard Times” and “Sweatshop Workers” excursions both offer an extended, two-hour tour and discussion version.  The simple visit is an hour, as is “Irish Outsiders”; “Exploring 97 Orchard Street” takes 90 minutes.  Note that for most of these, there are stairs to climb—no elevator has been installed in the Tenement Museum—and the staircase is narrow and quite steep.  Visitors should also be aware that no additional lighting has been installed, either, so hallways and stairs are also fairly dim.)

To walk the neighborhood, the museum also offers three alternatives.  “Outside the Home” (1½ hours), which doesn’t go into any neighborhood buildings, explores LES the way immigrants have experienced it for 150 years.  Sites that had significant impact on new Americans include the Jarmulowsky Bank building, where prospective citizens put their life’s savings, which many lost when the bank failed in 1914 when German depositors caused a run by withdrawing their money to send to family at the start of World War I; the Daily Forward building, the socialist-oriented Yiddish newspaper (now published as a weekly with an English-language edition) that fought for worker rights; and P.S. 42, the area school that taught generations of immigrants how to become “American.”

In “Then & Now,” the two-hour tour explores the district’s history with a focus on why it became such a center of immigrants, comparing its present day with its past.  (This tour also doesn’t visit any buildings.)  For “Foods of the Lower East Side,” visitors must bring not just their appetites, but their culinary adventurousness.  As the museum describes this two-hour tasting tour, it explores “the immigrant experience and some of the ways immigrant foods have shaped American food” by sampling the cuisine of the Ashkenazi Jewish, Chinese, and Afro-Caribbean newcomers, among several others, who have resided in LES in their turns and are represented in the neighborhood by the many ethnic restaurants.  Tour participants sample about a dozen different foods at various stops and you learn some of the hidden histories of common American dishes that have perhaps surprisingly evolved from immigrant traditions. 

On the first floor of 97 Orchard, museum-goers can visit with “Victoria Confino” in the Meet the Residents program, an hour-long encounter with the 14-year-old resident of 97 Orchard Street in 1916.  Played by a costumed “interpreter,” known in the museum business as a “first-person character,” Victoria answers questions from visitors, always remembering the year and her circumstances (or, as we say in the theater: staying in character), about her life in LES as an immigrant learning to negotiate her new environment.  The Confinos, Sephardic Jews from Kastoria, Greece, in the days when it was still part of the Ottoman Empire, came from comfortable circumstances, but her family became the object of scrutiny during the Balkan Wars in 1912 and ’13, so they packed up and emigrated to America in 1913.  Victoria, who grew up speaking Ladino, the Spanish-based vernacular of the Sephardim, has begun to learn English in her new school, a part of the role the museum interpreter has to internalize as visitors go back in time to meet her.

The meeting with Victoria Confino requires the visitors to play roles along with the interpreter.  They are expected to put themselves into the time and place of the young girl, assuming the roles of new immigrants themselves.  (The interpreter won’t answer questions on topics outside her time period or her age group.  Take, for instance, World War I: at her age, Victoria wouldn’t be likely to know much about it a year before the United States became involved beyond the fact that the Great War, as it would have been known then, was being waged in Europe.)  Though it’s the most creatively demanding, Meet the Residents isn’t the only inter-active visit in the Tenement Museum’s program.  All the guides at 97 Orchard Street ask tour participants questions and prompt them to relate anecdotes from their own histories or recall things they might have learned in history classes or out of their own experiences.  Objects and artifacts are often the catalyst for stories or historical details someone might remember. 

The Lower East Side Tenement Museum is open seven days a week throughout the year (except Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Year's Days) from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m.  The times of the different tours vary, so it’s necessary to call in or go on line to plan a visit (and some tours can be reserved on line in advance).  Tours, limited to 15 visitors, are booked and assembled and tickets are purchased at the Visitor Center at 103 Orchard Street, a few doors north at the corner of Delancey, which also houses the Museum Shop (providing many books on the subject of LES and immigration, among other pertinent topics) and the newly-opened Sadie Samuelson Levy Immigrant Heritage Center.  The Heritage Center hosts readings, lectures, panel discussions, films, and other presentations.  Tickets for most tours are $22 ($17 for students and seniors); the “Foods of the Lower East Side” tour costs $45 ($40 for students and seniors).  The museum offers memberships that provide deeper discounts as well.  There are also educational programs, including both actual tours and virtual tours, geared to students and school groups for ages 8 to 18.  There are also resources for teachers, and the website lists books and other sources for research and reading.

The museum is accessible by bus and subway (and many of the sightseeing buses stop at the museum, though street parking in LES is difficult and limited as the streets are narrow and it’s still a busy shopping area.  There are lots and garages, some of which offer free or discounted parking for museum visitors with validation.)  Keep in mind, as I said, that the building tours are not wheelchair accessible.  Some of the outdoor tours offer indoor alternatives for inclement weather and there are also alternative and supplemental arrangements to accommodate visitors with physical limitations such as blindness or deafness.   A good place to start exploring this interesting museum is on its website, http://www.tenement.org, which has links to specific information about the museum and the programs, including advice on group tours and other special arrangements that are available; the National Park Service (which doesn’t operate the museum), has a Tenement Museum site as well: http://www.nps.gov/loea/index.htm.  The general information phone number is (212) 982-8420 and the general e-mail address is lestm@tenement.org. 

[I must add that one visit to the Tenement Museum isn’t enough to get a real impression of what surprises it holds.  Since you have to visit the building with a guide, the operators have planned several different tours, each with a slightly different perspective.  You get a different narrative with each visit and a different view of the immigrant experience in lower Manhattan is revealed. 

[I’ll also point out that this isn’t the first museum about which I’ve written on ROT, though it is the first in New York City (not counting the brief description of The Cloisters I included in the first installment of “A Helluva Town”).  On 25 March 2010, I described a trip to the International Spy Museum in Washington, D.C., in “Spook Museum.”  There was a private aspect to that visit, as you’ll see if you read the report, but even outside of that, it’s a potentially more exciting experience than is the Tenement Museum.  Not less revealing or instructive, just more lively.  One important difference, though, is that the Tenement Museum is about the way people connected to many of us lived—my dad’s parents and grandparents, for instance.  (My grandparents and great-grandparents didn’t live in LES—they went up to Massachusetts to join other family members—but they did come through Ellis Island and eventually lived in similar neighborhoods in Upper Manhattan and the Bronx.)  Not many of us know people engaged in the life displayed at the Spy Museum.  Well, I do—but you probably don’t.  (I’d tell you more, but then . . . well, you know how that goes!)

[I’d also like to note that the life of 97 Orchard Street is almost precisely the same as the heyday of Yiddish Theater (which I recount in “National Yiddish Theatre – Folksbiene,” Parts 1 and 2, 23 and 26 August), many of whose patrons lived in this very neighborhood.  Many different waves of émigrés lived on the Lower East Side and the flavors, smells, and sounds changed accordingly, but in the era of the Tenement Museum, it was largely Ashkenazi Jewish, German and East European, and Italian.  Unsurprisingly, there was an émigré theater and entertainment scene that represented each national and language community.  (See also my report “Farfariello” on 6 June for a glimpse at an Italian-American performance form that was popular at the same time.)

[And since ROT is ostensibly a theater blog, I’d like to point out an interesting article about the “living history” interpreters, the “first-person characters” like those portraying Victoria Confino at the Tenement Museum: Nahma Sandrow’s “The Actors Who Make History Live” in the New York Times on 30 December 2001 (http://www.nytimes.com/2001/12/30/arts/the-year-in-review-theater-the-actors-who-make-history-live.html; originally in the Arts & Leisure section).  Though Sandrow introduces the article with a depiction of an encounter with Victoria, she covers many similar living history programs like Plimoth Plantation and Colonial Williamsburg.]


  1. On 8 February 2013, the New York Times ran an exhibition review by Edward Rothstein of LESTM in the “Weekend Arts II” section. I’m republishing the article on 17 February as a follow-up and supplement to the report above because Rothstein not only adds some additional information about the museum and the era it covers, but he reports on a new installation which I noted here was in the planning.


  2. "Tenement Museum Plans Expansion"
    by Patricia Cohen

    Visitors who enter 97 Orchard Street on the Lower East Side in Manhattan walk into a different century. The building, which was home for more than 7,000 immigrants between 1863 and 1935, is now the centerpiece of the Tenement Museum, which recreates the immigrant experience through guided tours. Now the Tenement Museum plans to expand its immersion into the past with new permanent exhibitions that focus on Chinese immigrants, Jewish Holocaust survivors and Puerto Rican newcomers who arrived in America after World War II. Museum officials have announced a project to house those exhibits in the upper floors of a building two doors down, at 103 Orchard Street, which it plans to renovate. The museum’s small quarters have limited attendance to 200,000 annually, officials said. The new tenement, acquired in 2007, will enable the museum to handle some of the thousands of people who have been turned away because of space constraints. Construction is expected to begin in 2016.

    [This article was published in the “Arts, Briefly” column of the New York Times on 17 January 2014.]