Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Questions for Curatorial: Exhibit Design

How did the Museum design the privy shed that now appears in the reconstructed rear yard of 97 Orchard Street?

While the physical composition of 97 Orchard Street’s privies cannot be known with any certainty, archaeological research, reformers’ accounts, and available photos of similar facilities help paint a picture of their appearance. Based upon extant photographs taken of Lower East Side tenement rear yards during the late 19th and early 20th centuries, 97 Orchard Street’s privy probably contained four compartments positioned in a row, roughly 2 feet 6 inches wide by 3 feet 9 inches deep, divided by wooden partitions. Indeed, the vault below measures approximately 9 feet long, suggesting that four stalls was the maximum number that could feasibly be sited over the sewer-connected privy.

Each compartment likely had door with a small ventilation hole and a possibly a lock. The floors, seats, and casing between the floors and seats in each compartment were also probably made of wood. While the typical length and width of tenement privy sheds were recorded by the reformers who wrote The Tenement House Problem, they failed to note the height of these structures.

In photos taken of tenement rear yards by the Tenement House Department between 1902 and 1904, the heights of privy sheds appear to have ranged between 6 and 8 feet. In many cases, the roof of the privy shed reached as high as the woodplank fence surrounding the yard, and both were often in line with the tops of the ground floor, rear facade windows of the tenement which they serviced.

In addition, these sheds exhibited ether peaked and flat roofs. Constructed using knotty pine, wooden privy sheds were truly vernacular structures whose size and shape was dictated both by the needs of the building owner and the prior experience of the carpenter who built them.

Below this structure, underground, sits a narrow, rectangular, mortared brick vault, 12 feet long and 4 1/2 feet wide, with some water at the bottom of the 9 foot long vault interior. Each compartment of the privy possibly had a funnel connecting the seat with the vault below, allowing waste to fall into the water-filled vault.

In addition, the brick vault had a drain on the east end, which connected to the sewer system. The drain might have been stopped with an iron cylindrical hollow plug, about 1 foot in height, and a bar and rod used to lift it out of the drain. There also may have been a pipe that was connected to the vault, which provided water from the Croton Aqueduct to periodically flush out the school sink privies.

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