Lower East Side Tenement Museum

Lower East Side Tenement Museum

Often referred to as the museum which brings home the fascinating immigration history of New York City in the most effective way, the Lower East Side Tenement Museum is considered one of the city’s ‘must-see’ venues.

This is the first museum in the United States to preserve a tenement building and it has achieved the status of a National Historic Site. It is unique for a number of reasons: Firstly because it brings to life the experiences and history of real people who helped shape the city of New York through their sweat and toils. It also examines the social tapestry of the way these people lived and loved, their communal experiences and the interaction between so many people from so many different countries who came together in a melting pot of civilizations.

History

In 1863, a German immigrant, Lukas Glockner, decided to invest $6000 and turn 97 Orchard Street into a tenement building for new immigrants who got off the boat at Ellis Island to try their luck in America. Between 1863 and 1935, more than 7000 tenants made this address their home in a bid to find cheap housing in the sprawling city, and as a stepping stone to their dreams of prosperity in their adopted country.

The tenement building went through constant renovation in order to keep up with the city’s zoning laws. However, in 1935, it was boarded up completely after restoration was found to be too difficult and expensive. In 1987, the building was opened up and found to be exactly as it had been left over half a century before. Restorers of the building found a vast amount of authentic items, ranging from kitchenware, toys, furniture, letters, newspapers and others that revealed the rich and fascinating history of the building.

Archaeologists started a tenement dig in 1993 in the building’s courtyard and many interesting artifacts were recovered. By 1994, the first four floors of the building were brought into compliance with the city’s building codes and the museum was officially opened to the public. The first two historic apartments were opened that same year to visitors who were interested in seeing how immigrants really lived so many years ago.

There are plans to restore other parts of the building and provide visitors a fascinating glimpse into a part of history that was influential on the formation of New York’s cosmopolitan character.

What's to Do and See?

The Media Presentation: It is highly recommended to view the media presentation about the museum in its basement before taking any of the tours. This one-hour show describes the terrible living conditions that immigrants found themselves in, and includes interviews with former residents. It offers a greater understanding of what one is about to experience on the tours themselves.

Public Tours: The Lower East Side Tenement Museum can only be seen through a guided tour. Visitors need to sign up for a tour on a ‘first-come-first-served’ basis. It is advisable to avoid the museum on weekends when the tours are usually full and packed to their maximum capacity. Remember also to dress in layers as the small confined quarters of the apartments in the building may cause you to feel uncomfortable if you are over-dressed.

Piecing it Together Tour
A one hour tour, suitable for adults and children aged 8 and up. Visit the apartment of a Jewish family from Poland who set up a small garment factory in their front room and celebrate the birth of their son with them. Then visit the apartment of a Lithuanian Jewish family who is mourning the death of their father. These visits to the Levine and Rogarshevksy families illustrate the tremendous problems faced by these immigrants and their efforts to support their families using the little skills that they had. It also shows how important traditions and customs were in their lives and how their community supported them through bad times.

The Getting By Tour
This one hour tour, suitable for children ages 8 and up, takes visitors to two apartments – the Gumpertz family (German-Jewish) and the Sicilian-Catholic Baldizzi family. The tour discusses social welfare in the U.S. and compares different time periods of the tenement building to options available to citizens today.

The Confino Living History Tour
This is a hands-on tour of the Confino family – a Turkish-Jewish family of Sephardic descent. Visitors are greeted by an actress playing the role of 16-year-old Victoria Confino who describes her new life in America after the comforts of her old home. Visitors are free to touch and explore all the items in the apartment and this is the perfect tour for families with children of five years or older.

Lower East Side Walking Tour
With the collaboration of local residents of Lower East side, these walking tours take visitors to various spots that illustrate the past, present and future of the neighborhood. The tour lasts approximately an hour and a half.

The Store

The museum has a gift shop that offers a variety of items for sale. Handcrafted items, books and other gifts are usually representative of the ethic and religious groups who lived in the tenement building over the years.

Tips when Visiting the Lower East Side Tenement Museum

  • Due to its authentic state, the tenement building has no elevator. The museum, therefore, cannot be accessed by wheelchairs and strollers. The Lower East Side Walking Tour, however, is wheelchair accessible.
  • Enquire about options available for the sight and hearing impaired.
  • The museum offers free parking to museumgoers at certain times of the day. Call for details.
  • Some of the tours include free one-hour discussions after the actual tour of the apartments, including snacks. For those who want to deepen their understanding of the time periods and experiences, this is the perfect opportunity to do so.

Visiting Lower East Side Tenement Museum NYC

The foremost vision of the Lower East Side Tenement Museum is its mission to promote tolerance and historical perspective by presenting real life stories of immigrants who left their homelands to come to New York City.

The museum has achieved its goals and has grown from a fledgling organization that employed two part-time staff members to a full-time staff of ten, and an operating budget of over $1-million. The museum continues to foster tolerance between different ethnic and religious groups by presenting the true picture of a shared heritage.

Location: at 97 Orchard Street and the Lower East Side, New York City, New York
Phone: 212-982-8420
E-mail: lestm@tenement.org

Click here to visit Lower East Side Tenement Museum official website