The Tenement Museum: Housing the Ghosts of our Past


Walls of the Tenement Museum

By: Sam Senini

A few floors up on 97 Orchard Street, lived the Gumpfords, a family of German immigrants that settled in Manhattan’s Lower East Side in the late 1800’s. Just as you would presume passing the building’s gritty exterior today, it bears witness to a not-so-pretty past. At least 7,000 people once called this compact building home. By the turn of the century the Lower East Side was one of the most densely packed neighborhoods in the country. Working class citizens of foreign decent had settled into the neighborhood at the height of the immigrant influx into America, the land of opportunity. Buildings just like 97 Orchard Street, now known as the Tenement Museum, housed large impoverished families into unbelievably cramped living quarters, the only spaces the uneducated immigrants could afford. 

While it doesn’t reveal the most picturesque image of America’s past, these people are one of the most important pieces to our nation’s history. The museum was founded in 1988 by Ruth Abram, a social activist who understood the importance of preserving the Orchard Street building (the only building in New York with an interior that had not been touched since the 1900’s). The intention was to honor the stories of American immigrants through a museum that accurately depicted the conditions of their lives.

Through recreating some of the compartments of the tenement building into replicas of rooms these families had once called home, people today may witness the ghosts of the past that once walked among the halls. The Gumpford family for example through extensive research have left behind enough information to present their story of life in the tenement over 100 years ago. Nathalie Gumpford and her husband Julius Gumpford met and lived in the apartment. Nathalie bore multiple daughters and together they worked as seamstress to survive and pay the rent. From records we know that Julius abandoned the family, sadly not an uncommon occurrence for husbands at the time, and left his wife to be a single mother to their daughters. From what we know Nathalie was a preserving woman, raising her daughters well and living to see them marry and move away from the humble residence to more comfortable homes starting families of their own. 

While life has certainly changed since the hard days of these first immigrants in America, it is important that their history remain alive. Just as the founders would have wanted, the New York House Committee on national Resources, approved legislation to allow expansion of the Lower East Side Tenement Museum this October. It is powerful that the museum may continue to grow and flourish as new generations of Americans come to visit and learn from the historic site. If their is one thing that ties our nation together, it is our ancestry, we are all essentially immigrants. The struggles of our ancestors, just like the Gumpfords make us who were are as a nation today.


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