Historically, the Lower East Side is an immigrant neighborhood. The tenement building at 97 Orchard Street provides a window into a variety of immigrant experiences, having housed over 7,000 residents between 1863 and 1935.
The Tenement Museum was founded in 1988 to preserve the stories of those who once called it home. Its façade has been reconstructed to show how it would have looked at the turn of the 20th century.
When the building was built in 1863, installing a fire escape was one of the few building codes in place. Fire escapes were often covered in laundry, and provided coveted sleeping quarters during hot summer months.
This was added in 1905, when the landlord replaced 2 first-floor apartments with stores and added display windows, wood-framed doors, and this wrought iron stoop to distinguish the commercial spaces.
The word “tenement” comes from the Latin tenere (“to hold”), and indicates a building with more than 3 families. Technically, all apartment buildings are tenements, but the term has a bad reputation due to poor conditions in the late 19th century.
Changes over time
Various elements were installed at different points. The front hallway looks much as it did when the founders of the museum, Ruth Abram and Anita Jacobson, discovered it in 1988. Many decorative features were added around 1905. The sprinkler system was installed in modern times. Changes were made to address practical problems, follow the latest trends, or obey new housing laws.
The mahogany staircase is original to the building. In 1935, a housing law mandated that all wood be replaced with non-flammable material. Because the landlord preferred to condemn the property rather than invest in repairs, the building stopped being a residence.
Door to toilet
Indoor plumbing wasn’t required for tenements until 1905, when a Supreme Court decision required running water in such buildings. Previously, tenants had used outhouses in the rear yard, which could be accessed through the back door of the hallway.
Pressed metal ceiling
Pressed metal was added in the 1870s or 1880s because the original plaster ceilings started to sag. If you look carefully, you will notice a variety of patterns used as patches for repairs throughout the years.
Although gas lighting was available and common in New York when the building was constructed in the 1860s, it was not added to this hallway until 1905, when it was mandated by the Tenement House Law of 1901.
This painting was added in 1905 to beautify the hallway. No one knows who the painter was and what inspired the image. Perhaps, this scene reminded someone of where they immigrated from or perhaps it represents a dream of living in place surrounded by nature and less crowded than New York’s Lower East Side.
Imagine this kitchen in 1916: The Confino family uses it for many purposes. During the day it is used for housework, but at night, this is where 14-year-old Victoria Confino sleeps. Victoria lives with 9 family members in this 325-square-foot, 3-room apartment.
Immigrants from Greece
The Confino's are Sephardic Jewish immigrants from Kastoria, in modern-day Greece, and have been in America for 3 years. Daily life is a balance of preserving home traditions, learning English, and learning to navigate their new city.
Manta; goat-hair rug
This goat-hair rug makes Victoria’s bed on the kitchen floor. In Kastoria, each Confino child was given a goat so they could learn to care for animals. The mantas are some of the few items they could bring to America.
On Friday evenings, Victoria’s mother lights 2 candles to mark the beginning of Shabbat, the Jewish day of rest. Though life is changing quickly for the Confinos, keeping Shabbat is a very important tradition for them.
Bumuelos are a fried dessert, similar to buñuelos in Spanish. The Confinos’ language, Ladino, has many Spanish words because their ancestors came from Spain. The Confinos make bumuelos on holidays like Hanukkah, from an old family recipe.
Back in Kastoria, the women would have cooked using a hearth, but in America, Victoria and her mother learn to use a coal stove. In winter, a family like the Confinos could use 300 pounds of coal per week.
There’s no bathtub or shower, so Victoria washes her baby siblings in this sink, which is also used for laundry. In Kastoria, the Confinos employed maids for housework, but in America, Victoria must learn to do the laundry herself.
The parlor serves many purposes. During the day, it is a multipurpose area used for praying, studying, washing and eating meals. At night, 6 boys use it as a bedroom. After living in a spacious house in Kastoria, the Confinos have now made a home in this 3-room apartment.
When she first arrived in America, 11-year-old Victoria was placed in kindergarten to learn English. She loved school. Soon after, she had to stay home and help the family, taking care of young siblings and sewing at the factory.
Victoria’s brother Joseph sleeps in the reclining armchair, David sleeps on the floor, Saul sleeps on 3 lined-up chairs, and Jacob sleeps on orange crates. Their cousins Albert and David sleep head-to-toe in the bed.
Abraham Confino and Victoria work in a small apron factory. Victoria’s brother Joseph works as a tin can maker. Cousin Albert is a printer, and cousin David is a tailor. The younger boys probably sell newspapers or shine shoes.
This photograph was taken soon after the Confino family arrived in America in 1913. (Victoria’s mother Rachel is in the back row. Victoria’s brother Jacob is on her father’s lap. She is on the right in the middle row.)
Photo of Kastoria
The Confino family once had little reason to leave Kastoria, a beautiful town on a lake surrounded by forests. But in 1912 came the Balkan Wars, which destroyed their home. After coming to America, Victoria never saw her hometown again.
Apartment in ruins
This apartment looked this way when the museum discovered it in 1988. We can use it to learn about the building’s history. Twenty layers of wallpaper and 40 layers of paint reveal the stories of some of the families that called it home.
The layout is similar to all the apartments in the building, consisting of 3 rooms and about 325 square feet (30 square meters). The central room is the kitchen, flanked by a parlor and a small bedroom.
Pants Made To Order Sign
This sign is from one of the commercial stores that remained in operation after the building closed as a residence in 1935. Before that, a coal stove would have been located where the sign stands today.
These indoor windows were added in the 1890s. Nicknamed “tubercular windows,” they were designed to bring more direct sunlight into the apartment to help combat disease. The Tenement House Act of 1901 required interior windows in all tenement apartments.
This fire door separates the bedrooms of 2 adjacent apartments. In the event of a fire in the kitchen, these doors allowed tenants to escape through their neighbors’ apartments.
Adolpho and Rosaria were married in Palermo, Sicily, in 1923. Soon after, Adolpho traveled to America to set up a home for his new wife. By the time she was ready to make the journey, restricted immigration made it difficult for Rosaria to get into the U.S.
Home for eight years
We do not know how she managed it, but Rosaria and Adolpho lived in 97 Orchard Street with their children, Josephine and Johnny, between 1928 and 1935.
Once a week, Rosaria removed the countertop from the tub, heated up water to fill it, and bathed both her children. Josephine remembers how important cleanliness was to her mother.
Table and radio
When the family wasn’t eating at the table, they played games here. Adolpho taught his kids how to play cards and Chinese checkers. He also loved making riddles for his kids to solve. The radio often played Italian music and soap operas, making Rosaria cry as she missed her family. After she came to New York as a young woman, she never saw her mother or father again.
After gas was installed here in 1905, residents had the opportunity to cook with something other than coal. While more expensive, gas was much cleaner and easier to use. Unlike coal, it didn’t heat the apartment on hot summer days.
This room is set to moving day. Imagine Adolpho and Rosaria packing up their apartment after 97 Orchard was closed as a residence in 1935. Having lived in this apartment for 7 years, the Baldizzi family must now pack up their belongings, take down pictures from the walls, and find a new home.
“My father could make anything,” Josephine recalled. Adolpho took his tools all around the city looking for work during the Great Depression. In 1939, he became a naturalized citizen and brought his carpentry skills to the Navy Yard.
This portrait of Franklin Delano Roosevelt was very special to the Baldizzis. As governor of New York, FDR founded Home Relief, the first state system in the U.S. to provide food and clothing to families during the Great Depression.
The Blessed Mother
As a devout Catholic, Rosaria regularly turned to the Blessed Mother for support, considering her a witness to daily life. “Madonna mia!” she would call out whenever the family needed help.
Aldolpho decorated the home with 'Morning Glories', flowers to remind his wife of the Sicilian town where she grew up. Adolpho planted the flowers in cheese boxes the family received from Home Relief.
Family lore reports that Harris and Jennie Levine arrived in New York in 1890 on their honeymoon from Plonsk (now part of Poland). By 1892, Harris had opened a small dress-making factory in his apartment at 97 Orchard, employing 3 to 6 workers. In these same rooms, Harris and Jennie also raised their family. Home life and work life were closely connected here.
All the shop’s garments were ironed next to the coal stove in the unventilated kitchen. This job, reserved for men, was a senior position in the shop. Full of hot coals, the iron could weigh 18 pounds (8 kilograms).
At sundown each Friday, Jennie reclaimed her apartment and welcomed the Sabbath, closing the factory for the Jewish day of rest. These candlesticks then took a central position on the table.
In 1897, the landlord didn’t provide running water or indoor toilets for the building’s 110 residents. This chamber pot was likely used by both family members and workers at the shop.
Two-year-old Hyman, the Levine’s second child, slept in the crib in the kitchen next to the stove. With so much happening in the shop every day, Jennie likely struggled to keep him safe.
A new immigrant in the 1890s could start a business with as little as $50 to cover equipment. Harris likely took a small loan from his mutual aid society to help him get started.
He operated the sewing machine in this room with 2 hired workers—likely teenage girls—who prepared garments for the sewing machine and put finishing touches on them by hand. The Levines’ dresses would eventually find their way into department stores across the country.
Harris Levine was the father of this household, the boss of this shop, and also the sewing machine operator. His machine is positioned next to the window so that he can have as much natural light as possible for sewing.
Five-year-old Pauline Levine played among the workers, and sometimes helped to sort buttons or pull thread. She could only go to bed once the shop closed and the room transformed back into a bedroom.
Sewing workers strained their eyes while doing detailed sewing work. These oil lamps supposedly produced 5 times as much light as candles, making it easier for the workers to do their work.
This clock would have tracked the long hours of the garment shop. Six days a week, Harris and his 3 employees worked for 60 hours—and sometimes more—to finish client contracts.
While the workers spent all day making dresses, none of them could afford such luxury themselves. This fashionable dress would have cost approximately $10 in department stores -- almost as much as monthly rent for this apartment.
Welcome! In 1870, when this neighborhood was known as Little Germany, this was one of over 500 saloons located here. Its story began when John Schneider, aged 12, came to New York with his family in 1842. He then fought in the Civil War and married a Prussian immigrant named Caroline Deitman.
John and Caroline operated this business for 22 years, providing a “living room” for the community with food, entertainment, and advice on living in America. Children carried this takeout container to collect beer from the saloon. Bartenders customarily filled a growler of any size for the same price as one drink at the bar, making this a very economical way for families to procure beer.
Though written in German, the Staats Zeitung was printed in New York City and marketed to local German speakers. It covered events in both the old country and New York. John Schneider advertised his saloon in this issue.
John Schneider would have barrels like this delivered from local breweries, which were also operated by German immigrants. Missing the lager beer of their homeland, German immigrants started their own breweries in New York using recipes from home.
Free lunch table
A patron’s beer purchase entitled them to a free lunch—a staple of Kleindeutschland saloon culture. Caroline prepared some of the food, while the rest was purchased from German bakers and butchers around the neighborhood.
John was a musician, making a point to advertise his saloon to the city’s “honorable musicians.” During the Civil War, he served in a musical regiment of the Union Army, and his regiment friends likely gathered here after the war.