Great architecture and old buildings are one of my big passions so when I was contacted by Partners in Preservation
about becoming a blogger ambassador, I immediately said yes. American Express and The National Trust for Historic Preservation have come together for a community-based initiative to raise awareness of the importance of historic places. Each year, they highlight a different city and this year Partners in Preservation is taking place in New York City where 40 historic sites from all five boroughs will compete for $3 million in grants. You are able to get in on the action by voting for the sites that you think should receive the money.
As part of my duties, I was asked to visit some sites and blog about them to help spread the word. When I looked at the list, my first choice of places to highlight was The Tenement Museum on the Lower East Side. It had been on my “to do” list for a while so this seemed like the perfect time to visit.
The building at 97 Orchard Street was built in 1863-64 by a German born tailor Louis Glockner. The term tenement has become synonymous with run down buildings but at that time it just meant a building with multiple tenants. The tour that I took was absolutely fascinating and really like a live episode of “Who Do You Think You Are?” The building housed numerous families over the years and the museum staff looked at historical documents and even spoke to living family members to piece together the lives of those who lived in the building. There are now plans under way to recreate some of the shops and even the tavern that was in the building and add them to the tour this fall.
Most immigrants came to New York through Ellis Island. Because there was no subway or public transportation system in 1864, they settled downtown. The Lower East Side had different waves of immigrants from German and Jewish to the Chinese and hipsters who inhabit it today.
The building was constructed with care as can be seen by these paintings in the main hallway.
It was pretty amazing to walk up the same wooden staircase as the original occupants.
The building originally did not have running water, electricity or gas. Residents, mostly the mothers, had to go out back to the well for water and to the basement for coal to heat the stoves. As you can imagine, this made the apartments very hot in the summer. Oh, and as you’ll see later, the bathrooms were also out back.
The building was later fitted with gas and water lines as well as toilets in the hallways which were shared.
It was condemned in 1935 and the apartments became storage space for the shops that were kept open on the ground floor. Since the shopkeepers kept an eye on the upstairs, the interiors weren’t damaged by squatters and it became a time capsule that would become The Tenement Museum.
As I mentioned, the museum has gone to amazing lengths to recreate what the apartments of some of the tenements of 97 Orchard Street would have looked like over the years. (Ignore any fans in the photos. Clearly they are not part of the original decor but help to keep visitors cool on hot days.)
You can read many of their stories online and take a virtual tour.
If you have any surly teenagers at home, I highly recommend a tour of The Tenement Museum. I know it made me appreciate all of our modern conveniences but they might appreciate that they don’t have to share a one bedroom apartment with their entire family.
There could be a family of two parents and as many as four or five children in one of these apartments.
While some space have been recreated, others have been left as they were found to give you an idea of how many layers of paint, wallpaper and linoleum were left behind.
This Delft wallpaper might have been hung by a Dutch family.
One tenant set up a dress making shop in their front room.
One of the children of this apartment happened to walk by one day and told them she lived in the building. Her stories helped them recreate her childhood home when she lived here during the 1930’s.
Amazing linoleum rug.
After another tenant’s husband disappeared, she supported her family by sewing dresses. New York has always been about the garment industry in some way or another.
The coal cellar.
America is a country built on dreams and New York is also a city of dreams. People came here hoping for a better life and they still do. We may have modern conveniences but it’s still hard. It’s the dreams that keep us going as they did for all the previous generations who paved our way. I think we all owe them a visit to The Tenement Museum
as a thank you.
Photos by Heather Clawson for Habitually Chic
Disclosure: I have partnered up with Partners in Preservation as a blog ambassador to help spread the word and raise awareness of select historical sites throughout the tri-state area. Though I am compensated for my time, I have not been instructed to express any particular point of view. All opinions expressed here are strictly my own.