The Lower East Side Tenement Museum's Creative Workaround
The Tenement Museum’s original building, at 97 Orchard St. on Manhattan’s Lower East Side, had been restored one floor at a time since founders discovered it in 1988. Even as the “ruins” there—layers of wallpaper and recovered objects—revealed how people lived in tenements, the building still needed structural work nearly three decades later. “It wasn’t designed for millions of people to visit,” says Annie Polland, the museum’s president.
Funding and permits to stabilize the floors and stairs, repair the facade, and incorporate an HVAC system came together midway through 2022. The problem was timing: The museum would have to close the building just a year after visitors returned following its pandemic shutdown.
“It was too heartbreaking to shut down just after we’d reopened,” says Chelsea Bracci, director of digital projects. She and her colleagues wondered, “How could we continue to tell these stories in a physical way?”
The solution: Transform classroom areas at the museum’s other historic tenement building at 103 Orchard St. into re-creations of three of the four 97 Orchard apartments. (The fourth one was re-staged offsite.) The curatorial team hired a set designer from a local high school, along with fabricators and scenic painters, to assist them in reproducing the apartments, which housed Italian and Jewish families from the 1860s through the 1930s.
When 97 Orchard is done later this year its furnishings will return, and the exhibits will resume as before. “We absolutely want no change in how it looks,” Polland says. The goal was simply to “strengthen our bones and our hearts.”