The Tenement Museum is housed in a 1863 building on historic Orchard Street on the Lower East Side. Image: Greg Scaffidi/AMNH.
Tucked on the Lower East Side, just blocks from the Williamsburg Bridge, the Tenement Museum embodies and represents the history of how New York as we know it came to be. Housed at 97 Orchard Street, the museum tells the stories of the immigrant families that lived within its walls between 1863 and 1935.
The building that is now the Tenement Museum was discovered by historians Ruth Abrams and Anita Jacobson in 1988, during their prolonged search to find a location from which to found a museum celebrating immigrant history. Abrams and Jacobson happened upon the building while seeking out a storefront location from which to run tours of the Lower East Side. The building, which had not been inhabited for over fifty years, was a time capsule, filled with artifacts that helped tell the stories of the many previous occupants.
In 1988, two historians discovered the impeccably preserved spaces in the unoccupied building now housing the museum. Image: New York Diary Star.
After years of careful archiving, extensive research and meticulous restoration, the Tenement Museum opened its first apartment to the public in 1992. Since then has opened six additional apartments, each telling the story of a family that lived at 97 Orchard. Life as a working class immigrant New Yorker is painstakingly recreated at the Museum, which is accessible via guided tour only. Each apartment has been restored and decorated with era-appropriate furnishings and details. Historians poured over an array of documents and photographs, interviewing as many former residents and family members they could find in order to reconstruct daily life in these apartments.
The kitchen of a restored apartment, home to a German immigrant family in 1878. Image: tokyojinga.
The significance and potency of the Tenement Museum has not gone unnoticed. Since it’s inception, the Museum has received significant financial support from individual and institutional donors. In September 2011, the Museum opened a 10,500 square foot expanded visitor center and shop at 103 Orchard Street, with new programming and a permanent exhibition space.
Likewise, leading scholars have recognized the importance of the Tenement Museum. Andrew Dolkart, Director of the Historic Preservation Program at Columbia University, wrote the award-winning book Biography of a Tenement House in New York City: An Architectural History of 97 Orchard Street, which documents and interprets the architectural and social history of the building.
When asked to comment on the Museum’s participation in the Partners in Preservation initiative, Dolkart responded, “The Tenement Museum is one of the most exciting preservation projects in America, a pioneering effort to interpret the lives of the working-class immigrants who were so important to the economic success of New York City and the nation as a whole.”
The Tenement Museum is one of the 40 locations in this year’s Partners for Preservation, a community-based initiative by American Express and the National Trust for Historic Preservation. As New York City’s first-ever citywide grassroots preservation effort, the call-to-action program will enlist the aid of all New Yorkers, and anyone who loves New York, to vote online to allocate $3 million dollars to the preservation projects most important to them. The funds would be used to “arrest” the deterioration of the “instructive ruin” apartments, left intact in an effort to illustrate the effect of time on the building.
Click here to vote for the Tenement Museum, and find out more about the Tenement Museum @tenementmuseum and Facebook.
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Untapped Cities is an official blog ambassador for Partners in Preservation , a community-based initiative by American Express and the National Trust for Historic Preservation to raise awareness of the importance of historic places. For complete coverage, follow our Partners in Preservation category.