A museum to tenement life

Confirmation Day - BaldizziThe Lower East Side TenementMuseum is dedicated to telling the story of the immigrants who lived in New Yorkfrom the 1860 to the 1930s. It's a story worth telling, say the museumcurators, because it "gives a sense of the struggles of the immigrants inthe past...and a fresh perspective on the equally powerful stories of immigrantscoming to the U.S. today."


Perhaps the greatest difficulty in telling the story of the Lower East Sideis the lack of material culture that has survived for contemporary analysis.Items like clothing, furniture, jewelry, toys, wall-coverings and rugs have allbut disappeared into junk-piles. A hundred years ago, no one saw the worth ofpreserving the stories and material possessions of the urban poor.

Like urban sleuths, museum curators are uncovering the history of thetenement building at 97 Orchard Street. They comb through city records, find,analyze and preserve artifacts, even excavate layers of wallpaper covering therooms of the tenement. (Read a story about the museum's wallpaperexcavation.)

The Lower East Side Tenement Museum
The Lower East Side Tenement Museum building at 97 Orchard Street

While not a grand home, 97 Orchard Street was far from a slum when it openedto tenants in 1864. It represented a solid step up from the dilapidatedrow houses that accommodated much of New York's burgeoning immigrant populationat the time. Built by a German immigrant, Lukas Glockner, the buildingrepresented a chance for the owner -- and the tenants -- to build a better lifein America.

Glockner reaped an ample income from rentals, until it was sold in 1886 for$29,000, nearly four times the initial construction cost. Glockner carefullymanaged the tenement while he owned it, perhaps because he and his family alsolived there.

The Museum has found evidence that Glockner painted the walls and stained thewoodwork of all of the apartments regularly throughout his ownership of thebuilding. When 97 was opened to tenants, water-based calcimine paints instunning pastels graced the walls. When oil-based paints were more readilyavailable in the 1870s, Glockner favored these, using a simple color scheme ofterra cotta in the front rooms, and blue or green in the kitchens and backbedrooms.

<a href="[removed]onClick=openImageWindow('/imagesvr_ce/stories/bitmaps/10268/97_stairs.jpg', 'location=no,toolbar=false,status=no,menubar=no,scrollbars=yes,width=500,height=450,resizable=yes,top=50,left=50')">Stairs
The main staircase of 97 Orchard Street

(For a larger view, click on any picture)

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Natalie Gumpertz, a Prussian immigrant and resident of 97 Orchard Street in 1874. She was left to support herself and four small children when he husband disappeared.

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A painting on the wall in main hallway, depicting a farm-house. The wall is covered in burlap coatedin linseed oil.

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The Confinos traded an upper-class lifestyle in the Ottoman Empire for a rat-infested apartment at 97 Orchard Street in 1913. They were part of a wave of Sephardic Jewish immigrants.

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The fireplace in the Ruin Apartment of 97 Orchard Street

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The kitchen of a Ruin Apartment.

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The staircase leading to the second floor of 97 Orchard Street.

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A doorway in the Ruin Apartment. The writing, which is aninventory of various articles of clothing, is likely evidence that the apartmentwas used as a storage space.

By 1930, the building had deteriorated, a victim of the devastating GreatDepression and absentee owners. 97 Orchard Street was not alone in its descentfrom a proud building to a slum. The New York City Housing Authority was createdin 1934 to deal with unsanitary and deplorable conditions of many of thetenement buildings in the Lower East Side. Fully half of the buildings lackedcentral heat and bathrooms in the apartments.

Faced with the prospect of making costly improvements in harsh economictimes, many owners simply evicted tenants and boarded up buildings.

In 1935, the tenants of 97 Orchard Street were abruptly evicted as tenementreforms swept the city. The building was never again used for housing.

The Lower East Side TenementMuseum Web site is rich with history and photos of 97 Orchard Street,the families that lived there, and life in New York's Lower East Side. The sitealso has a small online book store and offers information about visiting theMuseum.


A wallpaper excavation reveals history ->

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