LES Tenement Museum: Honoring the Ghosts of the Past

By Hwi Yong Shin

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Nathalie Gumpertz walked down the narrow staircase of the Tenement building to check her mail for the morning. The year was 1883, 9 years since her husband, Julius Gumpertz, had abandoned her and her children during the Panic of 1873 one of the harshest economic depressions in history. Since then, she had become a dressmaker, relatively well-paying occupation that allowed her to both stay at home and care for her three young daughters. The community had been sympathetic for her predicament and most of her customers were residents of the German immigrant neighborhood. As she shuffled through her mail there was one specifically marked from Prussia. She was surprised when she found a letter written from Julius’ father. He had just died leaving his son $600 dollars in estates.

Over the next few years Nathalie Gumpertz would petition to become its administrator in order to obtain the inheritance. With testimony from her landlord, Lucas Glockner, and her neighbor, John Schneider, the court ruled in Nathalie’s favor. She used the inheritance to close her business and move to the growing German community of Yorkville. She later passed away at the age of 58 in 1894 having seen her daughters to marriage. Perhaps fittingly, her husband, Julius, died years later in Cincinnati Ohio where he spent the last 25 years of his life alone in a Jewish old age home.

A restoration of what Nathalie's workplace could have looked like.

A restoration of what Nathalie’s workplace could have looked like.

Their story is only one of the roughly 7000 working class immigrant families who lived in Lower East Side of Manhattan. Their history still echoes through the LES Tenement Museum, an organization which dedicates itself to uncovering and retelling the stories of the families who inhabited their halls. By today’s standards, these apartments were often cramped, composed of four apartments and one washroom per floor which the residents had to share. After having been vacated in 1935 and reopened as a museum in 1988, the Tenement Museum has left a number of these apartments in its abandoned state with its deteriorating structure and peeling layers of wallpaper. David Favaloro, the director of curatorial affairs, explained “The idea was a museum dedicated to telling America’s most important story of how we constitute ourselves as a nation of immigrants.” and that the abandoned state of some of the rooms “evoke the ghosts of the past in a way the restored apartments cannot.”

He will be happy to hear then that at the end of the last month on October 30th, the House Committee on Natural Resources approved a bill that would allow the Tenement Museum to expand at its location in 103 Orchard Street so that the historical building could better accommodate visitors. H.R. 1846 will allow the museum to construct a new visitor center and organize additional educational exhibits and tours. Perhaps, it is the least we can do to honor the fascinating stories and experiences, like those of Nathalie Gumpertz, that occurred within the walls of the deserted apartment.

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