Peeling Off the Layers of History from the Walls of the LES Tenement Museum

by Stephanie Leontiev Image

Portraits of inhabitants are labeled in their respective rooms.

 

On 97 Orchard Street is a building from 1863 that used to house around 7,000 individuals, mainly European immigrants. Due to certain fire regulations that the landlord failed to comply with in 1936, all of the residents were evicted and the house remained empty for 50 plus years.

The museum came along in 1988 with these apartments being vacant with the goal to share the story of what happened to this Lower Eastside neighborhood and to reveal the histories of the families that were the inhabitants. David Favaloro, the museum’s director of curatorial affairs comments on the importance of preserving these apartments under the museum and says, “This spaces are more poetic—they evoke the ghosts of the past in a way the restored apartments don’t. I’m fond of talking about all of the layers of wall paper…that’s indicative of the layers of human history here in this building.” The founders of the museum, Ruth Abram and Anita Jacobson, desired to create this museum to express what they felt was America’s most important story: one of immigrants assimilating to a foreign land.

One of these immigrants was Nathalie Gumpertz from Prussia who immigrated in the 1850s. Her family lived through the Panic of 1873, after which her husband, Julius, abandoned them, and she reinvents herself to become a dressmaker to support her family of three daughters and one son. She inherits money that was left to her husband, since he was never heard from again.

Known as a “heroic woman,” Nathalie worked to survive. In the 1970s-80s, women were not able to shop in department stores, so Nathalie made her own custom-dresses that were ready-to-wear and sold them to many of the women in the neighborhood. The customers brought her material, and she would sew.

The Tenement Museum holds many remarkable stories as Nathalie’s. On October 30, The House Committee on Natural Resources approved legislation for an expansion of the Tenement Museum to 103 Orchard Street that would allow more space to tell the rich stories of the history of this area. This expansion will support the development of a new visitor center and additional educational exhibits and tours.

Representative Nydia M. Velazquez who authored the bill says, “the LES tenements housed generation after generation of new arrivals to our City. The Museum tells their story and by allowing it to grow, we can ensure visitors continue enjoying this local historic gem.”

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