LES Restoration & Revelation

LES Restoration & Revelation

97 Orchard St.: The Tenement Museum (Kiko Niwa, Courtesy Lower East Side Tenement Museum)

Spending time in a 19th-century apartment building may not sound like a path to 21st-century enlightenment, but a visit to the Lower East Side Tenement Museum proves otherwise.

With its period furnishings and entertaining guided tours, this four-story 1863 structure at 97 Orchard St. recalls the reality and the importance of émigré Americans, nearly 7.000 of whom lived here over the decades. Of course, now that immigration and refugees have become key political topics, the site, without fail, inspires thoughts of precedence and contemporary responsibility.

In 1968, Ruth Abram and Anita Jacobsen stumbled upon an abandoned storefront near the corner of Delancey Street. They wanted to offer tours and eventually build a museum to honor the country's immigrants, yet here they discovered a "time capsule" of genuine interiors. By 1992, the museum opened its first restored apartment, the 1878 home of the German-Jewish Gumpertz family. 

Now, visitors climb a modern rear staircase and enter on each floor, some spaces restored as if the occupants just stepped away, some left in ruin to show the archeological layers of taste and changing fortunes.

Guides rely on well-researched history to recreate the hard-life stories of residents like the Irish-Catholic Moores, who pumped water at the single backyard pump and carried it up four flights of stairs, or the Italian-Catholic Baldizzi family, who suffered in three tight rooms through the Great Depression.

Other narratives describe entrepreneurial spirits like the industrious Germans John and Caroline Schneider, who established their own 1870s saloon/community activist gathering place on the ground floor, or the Levines, who operated an early-20th-century garment workshop on the third.

Take away: Visitors feel a measure of respect for these brave, often beleagured New World arrivals, and many will sense an emotional tug, recalling their own family's history.

Check out the slide show below, and then purchase tickets online or at the Visitors Center and Museum Shop, 103 Orchard St., site of free readings and screenings about New York history as well as a source of intriguing books, crafted jewelry, kids toys, games, apparel and home decor. Special: late hours on first Fridays plus each Thursday at 6:30 p.m., tastings and a dinner of then-and-now Lower East Side foods.

Tenement Museum, 97 Orchard St., 977/975.3786, tenement.org