Explore Immigrant Stories at the Lower East Side’s Tenement Museum, a True Time Capsule

Photo by hisdorical

Editors’ Note: This post originally ran in 2010 and has been updated. You can read the original post here.

The Lower East Side Tenement Museum is a unique and authentic look at life on the Lower East Side for the immigrant groups that have called this area home. This five-story Italianate-style brick tenement at 97 Orchard Street was home to an estimated 7,000 people from over 20 nations from from the 1860s to 1935.

The building was built by Prussian-born immigrant Lukas Glockner in 1863. At that time it had basement retail and 20 apartments. It would later be modified with additional retail space on the parlor level, leaving 16 apartments.

Over the years, as the tenement laws changed, the building would gain indoor plumbing, cold running water, an air shaft, and two toilets per floor. It also was piped for gas and then wired for electricity. In 1935, rather than fix up the building, the landlord boarded up the upper floors, leaving only the storefronts open for business.

In 1988, historian and social activist Ruth Abram and museum co-founder Anita Jacobson found the building, a veritable time capsule, waiting to be revealed. It had long been their goal to open a museum celebrating the immigrant experience in New York City.

Former Mayor Ed Koch standing in front of 97 Orchard for Founders Day at the Lower East Side Tenement Museum in 1988. #tbt #throwback #history #koch #80s #nyc #ny #newyork #picoftheday #architecture #cool

Since the building had been closed up for over 50 years, lots of period detail and original layouts survived, as well as a multitude of artifacts and personal objects in the walls and under floorboards.

They opened the first apartment, the 1878 home of the German-Jewish Gumpertz family, in 1992. Over the years, five more apartments have been opened, representing different ethnic groups, families, and time periods in the building’s history.

The tours of the building are all guided and often use reenactors to tell the tales of the families and their living conditions. There is also a lot of visual history in the building, as the layers peel back revealing wallpapers, paint colors, plumbing and kitchens. All convey the joys and sorrows of living in one of the most crowded places in the world in the 19th and early 20th centuries, the Lower East Side.

In addition to the numerous themed tours of the tenement building, the museum also conducts separate walking tours of the neighborhood. Tickets are sold at 103 Orchard, originally three separate tenements built in 1888 and now the visitor center. There is also a bookshop in this location, and a space where lectures, readings, discussions and exhibits are held. The museum has expanded its storytelling beyond the early 20th century by highlighting post WWII immigration. This museum should not be missed.

How to Visit
Address: 97 Orchard Street, New York, N.Y.
Hours: Tour times vary; visitor center and shop open Friday through Wednesday 10 am.m to 6:30 p.m. and Thursday 10 a.m. to 8:30 p.m.
Admission: $25 for adults, $20 for seniors and students, children under the age of 6 are permitted only on certain tours.
Directions: Subway B or D to Grand Street, F to Delancey Street, J, M or Z to Essex Street.

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