History: The Lower East Side Tenement Museum tells the story of the American immigrant experience in New York City. Located at 97 Orchard Street in lower Manhattan, the building is a stark contrast to other public historical homes around the city such as the Merchant’s House or Roosevelt’s birthplace.
The original apartment complex was built in 1863 and modified several times over the years to conform with newly created housing laws. When first constructed, the five floor walk-up contained 22 apartments and a basement level saloon. Modifications over the years included the installation of indoor plumbing, cold running water, two toilets per floor, an air shaft, and gas, followed eventually by electricity.
In 1935, rather than implement more costly modifications, the owner decided to evict the residents and seal the upper floors. This decision (lucky for us) essentially turned the building into a time capsule of early 20th century living conditions, which was later discovered in 1988 by the museum’s founders. The building has since undergone a careful restoration that is as historically correct as possible.
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The museum offers a number of tours in the building and the surrounding neighborhood. My daughter and I recently had the opportunity to go on the Resident Tour where you visit the apartment of an original tenant. Miraculously, and with a lot of hard work, the museum’s researchers have been able to compile evidence through census records, genealogical databases, church records, city directories and various forms of archaeological evidence to establish the names, dates and occupations of the building’s occupants and tenement life.
On our tour, we learned about a Greek Sephardic family, the Confinos, who resided in a first floor apartment in 1916 (we also learned that their descendants have even been to visit the museum and offer further insight, which is pretty cool). The first thing that strikes you when you enter the building is how dark the interiors were back then with only low burning “gas” fixtures.
When you reach the apartment you are greeted by a costumed interpreter playing 14-year-old Victoria Confino. She is the perfect introduction for children to learn about American immigrant history. Victoria greeted us as if we were immigrants just landed in America, nice but hesitant to strangers. Visitors were free to ask Victoria questions about adjusting to life on the Lower East Side in 1916 as she showed us around the three small rooms where her large family resided. Unlike in most museums, children were allowed to handle unusual household objects and learn about their uses.
In other museum tours, visitors learn about the trials of the Levines and Rogarshevskys, who worked in the garment industry, or about the experiences of the Gumpertz and the Baldizzi families who resided there during the Panic of 1873 and Great Depression of 1929. Some of these tours may not be suitable for children of all ages so it is a good idea to check out the museum’s website before booking a tour.
My eight year-old had only one complaint: it was too short. She was disappointed that we did not get to meet the other residents in the building. There will definitely be a next time, I tell her.