My recent trip to New York City’s Tenement Museum underscored how historic buildings and innovative museum programming really make time travel possible.
The museum is a story of incredible luck and happenstance. In 1998, museum co-founders Ruth Abram and Anita Jacobson were looking for a place to tell the immigrants’ story in New York’s Lower East Side. Considering the storefront at 97 Orchard Street, Jacobsen went to see the bathrooms and instead saw a time capsule.
Built in 1863 by Lukas Glockner, the building’s 20 apartments had not been occupied since 1935. The central wooden staircase, which had an estimated 7,000 residents go up and down its narrow steps, stopped time. New buildings codes required fireproof stairways, and given the economy of the time, the landlord did not want to incur the expense of replacing the stairs. The rent from the storefront and basement generated sufficient income for the owner’s needs; the rest of the building was never updated and thus never rented.
When I entered the building on my guided tour, it was all I could do to keep my jaw from dropping. In the dim light, I could see burlap-covered walls, paint peeling from pressed tin ceilings, and old wiring. Upstairs in the apartments, I could see the layers of paint, wallpaper and floor covering that reflected changing tastes of residents through the years. The stories were there for the telling.
The museum staff and curators have carefully researched, restored and opened six apartments. Each tells the story of one of families that occupied it. The families are from different countries, cultures and time periods.
The next time you find yourself in New York I recommend you make time for a visit. If you can’t get there, take a virtual tour of the museum and be amazed.