Places that Matter

Lower East Side Tenement Museum

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Lower East Side Tenement Museum, exterior, photo by Molly Garfinkel
Lower East Side Tenement Museum, exterior, photo by Molly Garfinkel
Lower East Side Tenement Museum, exterior, photo by Molly Garfinkel
House museum presenting immigration history
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The Lower East Side Tenement Museum’s eponymous moniker can be misleading. For many people, the term ‘tenement’ is synonymous with straightforward dereliction, and the mere suggestion of an “historic house museum” conjures an experientially-limited three-hour tour designed for connoisseurs. In reality, the Lower East Side Tenement Museum transcends all of these stereotypes, just as its tours and exhibits encourage visitors to overcome many of their own. Since 1991, the museum has successfully implemented their founders’ expansive mission of promoting “tolerance and historical perspective” by engaging and educating long-time, new and temporary New Yorkers alike in the history of urban immigrant experiences. While passing through the confined spaces of 97 Orchard Street, visitors are implored to open their minds to the complexity of the lives spent in the building, and the ever-evolving nature of the way that we understand them. Although the social history of 97 Orchard Street is continually reevaluated and reinterpreted, the five-story and raised basement building sustained little physical redevelopment in the twentieth century. The extant historical fabric thus provides the rare didactic opportunity to inclucate visitors in the challenges associated with the tenement-construction wave, and subsequent reform movement, both of which washed over the Lower East Side from the mid- nineteenth century to the early twentieth century.

97 Orchard was constructed on property that once led to British Lt. Governor James De Lancey’s three hundred acre farm. After the Revolutionary War, the government seized De Lancey’s land and divided it into lots, several of which were purchased by John Jacob Astor, a wealthy German businessman who invested in Manhattan’s early nineteenth century East Side real estate boom. Beginning in the 1820s, New York City’s poor and working class population began to swell, and in response, many single-family row houses were converted into multi-family residences. At the same time, landlords constructed three or four story “tenant houses” designed for the same demographic. But as the demand for cheap housing expanded with the influx of immigrants in the 1860s, landlords began building larger, five or six story tenements that ostensibly housed twenty-two families on residential floors, and two businesses in designated storefronts. In actuality, the Tenth Ward, which contained 97 Orchard Street, was rapidly densifying into the German-speaking ghetto known colloquially as Kleindeutschland. There, tenements of all sizes were occupied by as many households, boarders, workshops and employees as could be crammed inside the apartments. Both residential and commercial units frequently contained all of these elements simultaneously. 

In 1863, German tailor Lucas Glockner erected 97 Orchard, a typical purpose-built tenement of the time. The name of the architect is unknown, but it is certain that he did not break any molds with this building. The edifice was identical to the building erected next door at 99 Orchard, and indeed, its simplified Italianate, four bay façade was cropping up all around New York City in the 1860s. Further, the common brick, centrally-place entrance and mass-produced, projecting metal cornice with stock details could be seen from almost any residential sidewalk in Lower Manhattan. Also characteristic of the period were the two wooden storefronts, located at basement level and accessed by stairs leading from the street, as well as the back yard, which was paved with stone and contained a water pump and “school sink” toilet facilities.

97 Orchard included five residential floors, each with four apartments. Apartment doors with transom windows opened onto kitchens equipped with iron stoves. Two steps from the stove in one direction, and a visitor found themselves in the “front room,” which contained the household’s only exterior windows until tenement reform laws forced landlords to add exterior windows to all rooms. On the other side of the kitchen was the tiny interior bedroom. 97 Orchard’s bedrooms had windows facing onto interior hallways, so as to provide the public spaces with light. Apartments were outfitted with horizontal sliding windows in the wall between the kitchen and the bedroom, which provided the dark interior spaces with a modicum of light and ventilation. With or without this feature, interior bedrooms were generally understood to be breeding grounds for diseases like tuberculosis, which killed many of New York City’s tenement residents.

While the structure itself is conventional, the building’s chain of title is perhaps slightly less so. Lucas Glockner had already lived in New York for a decade when he constructed 97 Orchard, and he was thus well aware that investing in the tenement was a serious risk, especially for a forty-three year old with a wife and children. Unlike many other landlords who sought to quickly turn their property into profit and move on, Glockner seems to have built the tenement with his own community, as well as his own household, in mind. Surely Lucas ultimately intended to ascend the socio-economic ladder, so the Glockners’ tenure in the building was predicated on fiscal practicality as much as fidelity. But the Glockners themselves lived in 97 Orchard for approximately six years, during which time they established relationships with the other residents. Lucas’ son married one of the tenant’s daughters, and the young couple moved into their own apartment in the building. Lucas lived elsewhere in the neighborhood by 1880, but he held onto 97 Orchard Street until 1886.

Over the course of Glockner’s extended proprietorship, social reformers agitated for tenement regulation that made it more difficult and less lucrative to earn a living as a landlord. Unfortunately, reform efforts did not drastically change living conditions for tenement residents. When 97 Orchard was constructed in 1863, there were no significant housing laws in New York City. The “tenement” as a building typology was first elucidated in New York City when the Tenement House Act of 1867 defined a “tenement” as a building occupied by more than three distinct households, or with more than two families per floor, and where toilets and halls were shared. With the 1867 law, New York mandated changes to tenements that resulted in the installation of running water and flush toilets at 97 Orchard Street.

Between 1866 and 1873, thirty-four five or six story tenements were built on Orchard Street within the Tenth Ward, and middle-class Progressives continued to focus their reformist energies on the plight of the poor. Sadly, the Tenement Housing Act of 1879, known as the “old law,” was nearly as ineffectual as the 1867 legislation, especially as it pertained only to new construction. It required all tenement rooms to have windows facing front or rear yards, or onto interior airshafts. James E. Ware developed the most popular “old law” solution to the 1879 edict, and buildings based on his scheme came to be known as “dumbbell” tenements, because in plan, the narrow airshaft made the buildings look like hand weights. Ultimately, adopting this design en masse caused New York City’s poor residents more harm than good, as the airshafts provided little extra light or ventilation, and instead acted as flues and garbage traps.

By the time that the “old law” was enacted, the German population in the Lower East Side had moved uptown, and was replaced by a new group of residents, mainly poor Jews from Eastern Europe. It was this demographic that turned the Lower East Side into the most densely populated ward in the city at the turn of the century. The most densely populated block within the ward was the one containing 97 Orchard. With the scores of new bodies circulating around the Lower East Side, in 1887 “tenements” were redefined as buildings that housed three or more families.

Middle-class reformers led campaigns that resulted in the 1901 Tenement House Act, which increased the minimum size of airshafts while shrinking the percentage of a lot that a building could occupy. The reforms also forced owners of older tenements to add glass panels to apartment doors, skylights to hallways and lamps to first and second floor stair entrances so as to combat the endemic darkness, and associated sin, of tenement public spaces. The Tenement House Department, with its squadron of tenement inspectors, was established to ensure that the “new law” was enforced. The 1901 mandate brought gas to 97 Orchard in 1905, but by this time electricity had already rendered gas service an anachronism. In 1905 two water closets were added to each floor, which meant that adjacent apartments lost critical square footage. The building owner also converted the first floor into two storefronts, as commercial concerns were more lucrative and dependable than rent from transient immigrants.

97 Orchard finally received electricity in 1924, the same year that the Johnson-Reed Act established immigration quotas. This legislation stemmed the flow of poor arrivals to New York City, and in combination with the construction of subways leading to the outer boroughs, caused the decline of the Lower East Side’s population. Many landlords subsequently allowed their property to deteriorate. In 1934 a new law required building owners to remove all wood elements from tenements’ public halls. Rather than pay for such costly renovations, in 1935 owner Moishe Helpern evicted all of 97 Orchard Street’s tenants except the building’s caretaker, Fannie Rogarshevsky, and the businesses in his storefronts.

97 Orchard lay effectively dormant and decayed from 1935 until 1988, when museum founders Ruth Abrams and Anita Jacobsen explored the building and found much of its La Guardia-era character and fabric intact. Even more fortuitously, preceding eras were traceable through subsurface layers of paint, wood, fabric and debris. Since studies began in 1988, archaeological investigations, extensive documentary research and an army of experts in all fields related to public history have worked together to immortalize six families out of the approximately seven thousand individuals who resided in 97 Orchard Street between 1863 and 1935. The German Jewish Gumpertz’s, the Irish-Catholic Moores, the Lithuanian Jewish Rogarshevskys, the Ottoman Jewish Confinos, the Italian-Catholic Baldizzis and the Polish Jewish Levines all serve as lenses onto the various historical periods during which they lived at 97 Orchard and navigated the realities of the Promised Land. Immigrants seeking roads paved smooth with gold frequently found themselves tumbling into poverty and struggling against Sisyphean obstacles, from starvation to exploitation to Depression. While their American lives bore tragedies, including the premature deaths of parents and children, abandonment by spouses, sweatshop labor, and eviction, the museum interpretations emphasize residents’ resilience and victories as much as the adversities they faced. Tour leaders successfully highlight residents’ agency and ability to capitalize on opportunities. More than merely passive subjects before Jacob Riis’ flashbulb, they too were observing and shaping their environs.

The Lower East Side Tenement Museum offers a chance to view residents’ textured histories from multiple angles. As of May 2011, visitors are offered five tours of the tenement building, where two apartments on each floor remain in the condition in which they were found in 1988, and six apartments have been renovated to various historical periods. The exterior has been interpreted to 1905.

97 Orchard is listed on the National Register of Historic Places and was designated a National Landmark. But the museum does not rest on these laurels, nor do they limit the public to investigations and interpretations of the building alone. They also offer two walking tours of the Lower East Side’s environs, and plan to open a Visitors Center, exhibition space and classroom in 103 Orchard Street. The museum is renowned for its far-reaching educational efforts, including frequent and free “Tenement Talks,” a well-attended lecture, readings and performance series. As of May 2011 they offer Tenement Talks with Open Captioning for the hearing-impaired. They also offer ESOL workshops to help today’s immigrants negotiate the myriad modern obstacles associated with settling in the United States.