Seam Stresses: LES Tenement Museum Preserves the Triumphs and Struggles of 19th century Immigrants

-By Kari O’Hara

Quiet and unassuming, the Tenement Museum blends in with the other brick facades that stand along the streets of the Lower East Side of Manhattan.

The building itself, constructed in 1863, was home to about 7000 immigrants during its more than 70 year life as tenement housing. Located at 97 Orchard Street, it housed mostly Prussian families during the late 1800’s.

The matriarch of one of those Prussian families was Nathalie Gumpertz, a resident in the building since 1860’s. Nathalie was the mother of three daughters and an infant son when her husband Julius disappeared. Unsure if he was dead or had abandoned them, Nathalie became the sole supporter of her family. Unfortunately, Nathalie’s case was indicative of the times. The local German language newspaper even ran a “Missing Husbands” column in those days, to incite community pressure in keeping husbands with their families. To make things worse, Nathalie’s infant son died only nine months after Julius’ disappearance.

To support her family, and as this was before ready-to-wear clothes were available in stores, Nathalie became a dressmaker. She likely worked with and for several women in the building.

Though she successfully supported her family for about a decade, Nathalie’s luck really turned in 1883 when Julius’ family wrote to her from Prussia: Julius’ father had died, leaving Julius an inheritance of $600. This would have been close to $10,000 today. Nathalie petitioned successfully to become the administrator of the estate, and used that money to move her family to a larger apartment uptown.

Nathalie died in 1894, never knowing what happened to her husband. The Tenement Museum, however, solved the mystery of the missing Julius in 2008 with the help of a couple genealogists. He had in fact left his family and moved to Cincinnati, Ohio, where he died about 25 years later.

Nathalie’s is only one of the 1500 residents that the Tenement Museum has identified as living in their tenement building. They have researched and recreated many of their lives, which they share on their tours through the building.

Tenement Museum preserves these personal and family histories to represent the realities of New York’s immigrant history, and complicate some assumptions. “Our idea of what constitutes an acceptable level of privacy in our own homes is quite a bit different,” David Favaloro, Director of Curatorial Affairs, said. “That said—yes, living conditions here, in this building, and in those like it were characterized by significant overcrowding. But the research that we’ve done about this particular building really complicates that picture. In the earlier part of the building’s history, the 1860’s and 1870’s, this is a far less densely populated neighborhood than it would become 30 or 40 years later.”

Even so, the current Tenement Museum is planning to expand. Our modern ideas of personal space, and luckily for the Museum, a growing interest in the city’s tenement history, has led to a request for expansion. The House Committee on Natural Resources voted to allow the expansion on October 30th this year. This expansion will include a new visitors center and new exhibits.

As a historic landmark, the Tenement Museum’s main objective is to stand, to present history, and preserve the stories of Nathalie Gumpertz and her neighbors, as long as visitors keep coming to hear them.

Image

Hallway and living room in unrestored condition at the Tenement Museum

 

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