The Tenement Museum on the Lower East Side fully reopened Thursday after a year-long closure for a project to preserve historical features in its main exhibit.
Guests can now visit the revitalized exhibit building at 97 Orchard St. — one of the museum’s two buildings — and explore its enhanced museum tours with new research, storytelling, and an upcoming December exhibition.
The preservation project protected original features and finishes, and comprehensively supported the building’s ongoing use for the safety and comfort of visitors, according to the Tenement Museum.
There was structural work done including reinforcing interior structures, repairing the brick façade, installing a new HVAC system delivering passive air through the 1905 air shafts, and putting up specifically designed historic windows with state-of-the-art UV filtration to help preserve the museum’s recreated apartments.
As a result of the preservation efforts, the five-story museum’s top floor will open for the first time in the museum’s history for its newest permanent exhibit.
The building, originally built in 1863 by a German tailor, housed people and families in need of housing. The 160-year-old building was in severe disrepair at the time of its founding, thus requiring the preservation work.
Annie Polland, the president of the Tenement Museum, told amNewYork Metro that there have many changes in the last few years, including museum staff being furloughed during the pandemic and many of the museum’s exhibits being moved during preservation.
“Once we recovered from the pandemic, we reopened, and then we closed again,” Polland said. “We closed our main buildings in order to do the preservation process.”
The Tenement Museum struggled financially to make it through the height of the pandemic. Morris Vogel, the former president of the Tenement Museum, had stated the pandemic prevented the museum from earning its essential revenue and organizing its gala — the “heart of our fundraising.”
The museum started a campaign on its website to “Help the Tenement Museum Survive.” The campaign raised more than $498,000 from nearly 4,000 donors, just short of its $500,000 goal.
The campaign was just one of several sources that the museum drew funding from to continue its existence.
Parallels to the migrant crisis
Polland pointed to the connections between the histories and legacies preserved at the museum and the ongoing migrant crisis in New York City today. She said that she feels a responsibility to continue sharing the story of past newly arrived families — such as the Irish, German, Italian, and Jewish — with the new migrants so that they can see the connection and learn from their stories and derive home from the resilience of so many New Yorkers who fled difficult situations.
“I do feel that New York City and the Tenement Museum have a responsibility to be welcoming,” Polland said. “It’s in our mission. It’s in our DNA — we tell the stories of how people came with nothing. For generations, that’s how they’ve been coming to New York.”
A historian herself who was the former executive director of the American Jewish Historical Society, Polland believes that the country needs better immigration legislation to “fix and better take care of the immigration issue at hand.”
“We have so many families coming to create new lives and find new lives,” Polland said. “It gives our building even more meaning and more importance at this time. We’re so excited that people can come and learn about how people in the past did the same thing.”
Polland said she was excited for programming to begin, including a public program scheduled for next week bringing immigration judges, lawyers, and journalists to talk about possible solutions to the current migrant crisis.
The museum is currently working with organizations to bring a group of families in October to create a new, Spanish-language version of a program.
“We’re hoping that that can lead to continuous use of our building as a place for the newly arrived so that they can share their stories to another platform,” Polland said.
The museum also announced a new exhibition, “A Union of Hope: 1869,” which the museum states will explore the Black immigrant experience in post-Civil War era SoHo. The exhibition will open on Dec. 1.
“It’s the story of a Black family who lived in the tenements in the 1860s,” Polland said. “It’s an amazing story of a man who was born free in New Jersey in 1837, Joseph Moore.”
The exhibition will trace Moore’s story through the draft riots and the Civil War, the period of Reconstruction and the passage of the 13th, 14th, and 15th Amendments.
“The preservation project strengthened the fifth floor of the tenement that had never been strong enough to host visitors,” Polland said. “That strengthening literally gave us the framework and foundations to create this exhibit.”
Ruth Abram, a historian, and Anita Jacobson, a social activist, founded the Tenement Museum out of a dilapidated building on 97 Orchard St. in 1988. The two had uncovered physical evidence left behind by the families who used to live in the building from the 1860s all through to the 1930s.
With 12 different stories of different families spanning over a century, the Tenement Museum reimagines former families from China, Eastern Europe, Germany, Greece, Ireland, Italy, Puerto Rico, and Russia.
“We’re telling the stories of people who never ever, ever thought their stories would be told in a museum,” Polland said. “Our visitors can imagine their own parents, grandparents, great grandparents, great, great grandparents. I think that makes for a very personal experience.”
The Tenement Museum today continues to represent a shared belief that the stories of real families shape the nation’s shared identity.
“We’re so excited to reopen that building, move all the exhibits back in the places where they belong, and continue to tell the stories,” Polland said. “The mission of the Tenement Museum is to welcome people into the homes of immigrants, migrants, and refugees in order to connect the past to the present.”
Visit tenement.org for more information about the museum, and operating hours.