by Josh Azar
If you want to know what life was like for an immigrant in New York City over a hundred years ago, look no further than the Tenement Museum. The Tenement Museum is made up of a few preserved tenement buildings on Orchard Street, in Manhattan’s lower east side. The museum opened in 1988, and was declared a historic landmark by Congress (which is currently considering expanding the musuem) in 1994. It uses historical records, genealogists, and even family members to piece together the stories of immigrants who once lived in its buildings.
Of the estimated 7,000 former residents, the museum has been able to identify 1,500 by name, according to David Favaloro, the director of curatorial affairs for the museum. Visitors can take tours where they walk through reconstructed apartments, and hear the stories of specific families. “We collect objects that serve as the vehicle for story-telling,” Favaloro says. One such family is the Gumpertz family.
The Gumpertz family lived at 97 Orchard Street for a period of time between the 1860s and 1880s. The family had made it through the Panic of 1873, but they were not safe from hardship. One day in 1874, Julius Gumpertz didn’t come home, leaving his wife Nathalie to care for their three daughters and infant son on her own. Like many women at the time, Nathalie began making and selling dresses to support her family. After the building was closed to residents in 1935, some garment stores based there continued to operate. On a wall in another apartment on the floor, you can still see the inventory of clothing scribbled on the peeling wallpaper. One day, Nathalie Gumpertz received a letter from her missing husband’s family back in Prussia. Julius’s father had died, and left an inheritance. But since he was as good as dead, the money passed to Nathalie Gumpertz, and she was able to move to Yorkville on the upper east side, where Nathalie died in 1894.
“The [museum] founders had this idea that they wanted to create a museum dedicated to what they felt was the telling of America’s most important story,” Favaloro says. “How we constitute ourselves as a nation of immigrants.” This goal might just be made easier. The House Committee on Natural Resources recently approved the museum’s expansion. The legislation which would allow this must now go to the full House to be considered. Should the bill pass, the Tenement Museum would be able to open a new visitor center, and add new exhibitions and tours.