Thursday, May 31, 2012

Shop Life: A Glimpse of Our Progress

As construction progresses on our "Shop Life" exhibit, the ground floor rooms at 97 Orchard Street are evolving day by day. This phase of construction isn't quite as dramatic as others have been, but they're still critical.

Believe it or not, there's a lot going on in this photograph of the new exhibit space:

This room will soon represent Caroline Schneider's kitchen
To begin with: we've got a beautiful new chair rail around the walls, carefully crafted by Kevin Groves. Kevin has worked on Tenement Museum exhibits for many years. He pays close attention to detail, ensuring that everything he builds is beautiful and historically accurate.

The small rectangular cut-outs in the wall reveal snippets of the building's history; lines where partition walls once stood, and places where previous walls were attached to the brick structure. We use these "exposure windows" to give visitors glimpses of the building's past.

Why do we cover the brick at all? Though it's charming to the contemporary eye, exposed brick is very much a mid-to-late 20th century phenomenon. Originally, these spaces would have had painted plaster walls (just as the residential apartments upstairs did), so we're re-creating that aesthetic for "Shop Life".

The site of another big upcoming innovation also looks pretty humble these days:

The site of our future wheel chair lift

This is a photo of our rear yard, where we're preparing to install a new wheelchair lift. This exciting new addition will allow wheelchair users to access to "Shop Life"--the first wheelchair-accessible exhibit at 97 Orchard Street!

We'll keep you posted with further updates as work progresses on our new exhibit.

-- Posted by Kira Garcia

Thursday, May 17, 2012

Re-creating Home Decor c.1872

With construction of our "Shop Life" exhibit well underway, it's time to start thinking about interior design for the re-created home of John and Caroline Schneider. The Schneiders ran a German beer saloon at 97 Orchard Street and lived in a small apartment behind the commercial space. What did their home look like? Our Curator Pam Keech answers this question through the careful selection of paint, furnishings, and textiles for the space.

It's a bit more complicated than going to Home Depot to pick something pretty. As a first step, we worked with Jablonski Building Corporation to study the traces of interior finishes left behind in the building, in order to re-create them accurately. Tiny paint and wallpaper samples were examined under a microscope and dated, layer by layer, to gather the best possible information (we talk about this process on our "Exploring 97 Orchard Street" tour).

A photomicrograph of a paint sample

Because "Shop Life" will recreate the space as it appeared in 1872, we'll use paints that match the earliest found layers. For the back room, it's a light grayish olive colored base coat topped with a yellowish brown colored glaze.

Here's a peek at Pam's "finish schedule" for the kitchen and back room:

Pamela has also chosen a period-appropriate ingrain carpet and fabric for curtains. As was typical for the time, the building's wooden floors were intended to be covered with carpet. And curtains would have been essential for the Schneiders, since their ground-floor bedroom window looked out onto the building's backyard just a few feet from the privy stalls!

The black and red jacquard carpet and gold floral curtain fabric are a bold combination. "We didn't want to be too matchy-matchy," said Pamela, "It would be too precious."

Carpet and curtain fabric samples

We'll keep you updated as our design progresses for the "Shop Life" exhibit!

--Posted by Kira Garcia

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Anachronists Just Wanna Have Fun!

Last month, the time-space continuum experienced a blip when two former residents of 97 Orchard Street packed their bags and headed down to Delaware where they dined with George Washington.

Let me explain: Last month, the Association for Living History, Farm and Agricultural Museums sponsored a First Person Interpreters retreat.  My co-worker Jeffrey Marsh and I went to learn from others who portray people of the past.  In addition to giving tours as 21st-century Educators, Jeffrey and I also work as costumed interpreters, portraying two former residents of our building. In these roles, we talk with visitors as they tour our recreated apartments. I portray Victoria Confino, (featured in Meet the Residents: Victoria Confino), a teenaged Sephardic Jewish girl who lived at 97 Orchard Street from 1913 to 1916. And Jeffrey portrays Harris Levine, (featured in Live! At the Tenement) a garment shop owner who lived in our building from 1890 to 1905. 

Sarah Litvin as Victoria Confino and Jeffrey Marsh as Harris Levine

The retreat included sixty participants from across the country, both volunteers and paid professionals. Some portray real historic personages , others play composite characters created to give a sense of the period. The retreat helped us improve our abilities to create accurate, believable, empathetic characters to foster connections with visitors. Workshop topics included storytelling, tackling taboo topics, movement in character, and incorporating a character’s religious worldview. It was fascinating to learn about the challenges of portraying other characters at different sites, as well as the strengths of our programs.

It turns out our program structure is pretty unique in that our visitors are given a role to play in their interaction. For example, in our "Meet Victoria" tour, visitors play the part of a family of newly arrived immigrants. In "Live! At the Tenement", visitors play newspaper reporters on the lifestyle beat. These roles help visitors feel more comfortable during the interaction.

On Saturday night, we gathered for a banquet at the Air Command Museum in Dover. All attendees came dressed in character: George Washington sat next to Lydia Maria Child, who sat next to Harris Levine! Many participants made their own detailed costumes, using complex historic patterns. It was a fun event, and yet I couldn’t help shake the feeling, as George Washington handed me the sweet potato delight, that the real Victoria Confino would think me awfully strange.
If this sounds interesting, check out what our colleagues are up to! Here is a list of the sites that offer First Person Interpreted programs.

-- Posted by Education Associate Sarah Litvin

Thursday, May 10, 2012

Notes on the History of Mother's Day

Mother's Day is just around the corner. How did this tradition begin? Surprisingly, its origins have nothing to do with flower arrangements or breakfast in bed. In fact, the holiday originally carried a serious social message.

Mother's Day was conceived in 1870 by abolitionist, activist and poet Julia Ward Howe. Born in 1819, Howe was an accomplished writer who penned "the Battle Hymn of the Republic," among many other songs and poems. In 1908, she became the first woman nominated to the American Academy of Arts and Letters. She also campaigned for women's suffrage, though she passed away in 1910--a decade before the passage of the 19th amendment which granted women the right to vote.

Julia Ward Howe; Image courtesy New York Public Library

Howe's "Mother's Day Proclamation" was an anti-war treatise written in response to  American Civil War and the Franco-Prussian War. Because so many mothers lost sons and husbands in these conflicts, Howe felt they should speak out against war.

Though Mother's Day has changed a lot over the last century, Howe's proclamation is still powerful:

Arise, then, women of this day!
Arise all women who have hearts,

Whether your baptism be that of water or of tears
Say firmly:

"We will not have great questions decided by irrelevant agencies,
Our husbands shall not come to us reeking of carnage,
For caresses and applause.
Our sons shall not be taken from us to unlearn
All that we have been able to teach them of
charity, mercy and patience.

"We women of one country
Will be too tender of those of another country
To allow our sons to be trained to injure theirs."

From the bosom of the devastated earth a voice goes up with
Our own. It says, "Disarm, Disarm!"
The sword of murder is not the balance of justice!
Blood does not wipe out dishonor
Nor violence indicate possession.
As men have of ten forsaken the plow and the anvil at the summons of war.

Let women now leave all that may be left of home
For a great and earnest day of counsel.

Let them meet first, as women, to bewail and commemorate the dead.

Let them then solemnly take counsel with each other as to the means
Whereby the great human family can live in peace,
Each bearing after his own time the sacred impress, not of Caesar,
But of God.

In the name of womanhood and humanity, I earnestly ask
That a general congress of women without limit of nationality
May be appointed and held at some place deemed most convenient
And at the earliest period consistent with its objects
To promote the alliance of the different nationalities,
The amicable settlement of international questions.
The great and general interests of peace.

--Posted by Kira Garcia

Tuesday, May 8, 2012

"We do what we do because history matters"

Straight to the point, peeps, here’s the deal: Lower East Tenement Museum alongside 39 other hopefuls is fiercely competing for the Partners in Preservation ("PIP") prize of over $200,000 for restoration needs. Voting is 100% free!

Go here. Or here. Login with your Facebook or if you don’t have one (G-d bless your willpower to hold out) you can create a Partners in Preservation login.

Our Lady of Orchard Street (I am pretty sure no one else calls her that, but it's catchy) a.k.a 97 Orchard is up against the Guggenheim, Ellis Island and the Central Park Conservancy's Cleopatra's Needle. 'Cause that's fair. Yea, yea , life isn't fair, but this is a democracy! You have a vote! In fact, you have one vote every single day until May 21! Votes= a voice and my voice wants to shout to the heavens why I love 97 Orchard.

Our Beloved Tenement

Like all love stories, let's begin once upon a time...there was a man named Lucas Glockner. An immigrant himself, Lucas decided to enhance Kleindeutschland by building a home for immigrants on New York’s Lower East Side. It was one of many five story walk-ups that would become known as tenements and without giving away an entire tour here, the building that Lucas built in 1863 would become home to more than 7,000 immigrants from over 23 countries.

Jumping forward 72 years, 97 Orchard shut its doors to residents in 1935 for a variety of reasons and I’d love to tell you all of them when you come on a tour, but for now let’s just say that it was fate.

For in 1988, the co- founders of our museum, Ruth Abram and Anita Jacobsen happened upon a basement storefront that was “For Rent”. Little did they know that the apartments upstairs were sitting dormant save for one or two being used as storage. When that gem revealed itself, the Lower East Side Tenement Museum was born and with it, the preservation of a LES Tenement and the resurgence of contemporary tolerance for immigration through historical perspective because we are ALL immigrants. Yes, all of us. Check out your family tree if you don't believe me.

Anywho- inside 97, different time periods have been preserved, restored and recreated throughout much of our beloved building, but on each floor, we've left one or more apartments in a state of ruin. We call them "the Ruin apartments" and it is they that need your help. You can see for yourselves in the pictures below.

A ruin apartment at 97 Orchard Street

Check this out: In a ruin on the 4th floor- one of 97's tenants, Ruth Katz decided to write her name on the wall somewhere around 1930. Pretty sure that's priceless and worth saving.

Graffitti at 97 Orchard Street

Fact: in addition to being Bowery Boogie's resident historian- for the past almost 6 years (holy moly) I have been an Educator at the Lower East Side Tenement Museum. Thus, the love affair. I LOVE IT HERE as do all of my fellow Educators. We do what we do because history matters. This place matters.

I'm writing to you simultaneously from the Tenement and Bowery Boogie because they are a match made by Lower East Side yenta and because I possess magical powers.

Fact: There are three other LES sites competing in PIP. If you spread out your voting we can mastermind an LES sweep and take top 4! Seriously, I'm good with that. If you need some more inspiration and background as to why you need to VOTE for an LES site once a day (but mostly the Tenement) every day until May 21, I am happy to oblige.

Blogger Heather Clawson of Habitually Chic was chosen as an ambassador by PIP. She says:

"Great architecture and old buildings are one of my big passions so when I was contacted by Partners in Preservation about becoming a blogger ambassador, I immediately said yes. American Express and The National Trust for Historic Preservation have come together for a community-based initiative to raise awareness of the importance of historic places... As part of my duties, I was asked to visit some sites and blog about them to help spread the word. When I looked at the list, my first choice of places to highlight was The Tenement Museum on the Lower East Side. It had been on my "to do" list for a while so this seemed like the perfect time to visit."

Heather, you got more pictures in one visit than I've managed to sneak (kidding) in my entire tenure. Nicely done! Time to share!

Image Courtesy Habitually Chic

Image Courtesy Habitually Chic

If you aren't yet grasping the gravity of why we need to preserve the ruin apartments let me put it to you this way: what would Greece be without its ruins? Italy? Turkey? Tombstone? (what? I totally went to college in Arizona, it counts).

Image Courtesy Habitually Chic

Help us and we will help you back by continuing to offer tantalizing, educational, inspirational and passionate tours to you every single day (except Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year's). For the sweep, vote Henry Street Settlement, St. Mark's in-the-Bowery which I literally, just wrote about and DMAC (Duo Multicultural Arts Center on East. 4th) Thank you in advance.

I know you won't let us down--and by us I mean the Tenement Museum and the Lower East Side. Bless up!

--Posted by Educator Allison B. Siegel

Friday, May 4, 2012

97 Orchard Street's Smallest Artifacts

We've recently shown you some of the more unusual finds we've excavated from the long-sealed fireplaces at 97 Orchard Street. Some of the larger objects we've uncovered--like a toy wagon wheel and a cigarette machine sign--were pretty hard to overlook. But smaller items were buried in piles of rubble, ash and debris that had accumulated in the fireplaces.

Fishing these small artifacts out involves a careful process of sorting and sifting. The debris from each site is bagged and tagged with its source, then carefully sifted to find any remaining evidence of the building's history.

Sifting through the debris

This dusty work pays off  when little treasures are revealed, including a tiny doll's arm and a toy ceramic dish. These small artifacts may seem insignificant, but they help us tell the larger story of the residents who once called our building home.

This arm seems unrelated to the doll's head we unearthed earlier.

Was this bowl left behind from a doll's tea party? 

-- Posted by Kira Garcia

Tuesday, May 1, 2012

What the Other Half Paid: Part Two

This is the second of two posts by author Thai Jones exploring the history of how working New Yorkers have struggled--and fought--to make ends meet. Thai will join us for a Tenement Talk on May 3 to discuss his book "More Powerful Than Dynamite: Radicals, Plutocrats, Progressives, and New York's Year of Anarchy"

“The Tyranny of Rents”: Housing Prices

In the nineteenth century – as now – New York City was among the most expensive housing markets in the nation, and lodging costs were another perennial cause of distress.

A New York family is evicted c.1910; Image courtesy Library of Congress

“Perhaps there is no more certain index of the prosperity of people of all classes,” a real estate expert wrote in the aftermath of the financial panic of 1873, “than may be found in the amounts paid by them for house-rents.” The recession had affected everyone, even the wealthiest residents. Affluent families who had formerly paid $5,000 a year in rent moved to homes that cost $2,000. A four-story brownstone on Madison Avenue near 25th Street that had rented for $6,500 before the crash was going for half as much in 1875. 

By the start of the twentieth century, a prosperous young couple just starting out in life could expect to spend $27 a month for “good, airy, though small, apartments.” But – a society advice columnist warned – it didn’t pay to go lower than that. “Your American cannot go much under $20 a month,” she explained, without coming down to a type of apartments as odoriferous of soap suds and cabbage as the east side is of onions.”

The poorer residents of the city had long discussed “the tyranny of rents” in a far more dire tone. On average, they paid $10 a week for housing in the early 20th century “The poor may buy less food and suffer more,” explained a City official. “But there is no escape from rent. They must pay the rent or be turned out.”

When rents soared too high, working families organized mass rent strikes: refusing to pay exorbitant rates and demanding reductions and rent controls. In 1907 – at the height of the movement – hundreds of women paid house calls to encourage others to withhold payment; as a result fifty thousand families refused to pay, and thousands won reductions from anxious landlords.

Women discussing a rent strike on New York's East Side c.1910; Image Courtesy Library of Congress

“What is a Fair Living Wage?”: Calculating the Cost of Living

Journalists, social scientists, and philanthropists spent decades examining these conditions and postulating solutions. Attempts to tabulate and quantify the “cost of living” were made in an effort to establish a fair living wage.

In 1881, experts estimated that $1,000 a year – the starting salary for a policeman at the time – could support a family in New York. A decade later, in 1892, the Wall Street Journal tallied typical wages, reporting that bakers earned $12.25 for a six-day week. Blacksmiths, machinists, carpenters, and other tradesmen averaged between $12 and $18. Unskilled laborers brought home a scant $10.50. None of these trades, in other words, was bringing in enough income to approach the $1,000-a-year mark that reformers had recommended.

Although male breadwinners continuously demanded wages high enough to support their families, that ideal was far from reality. Working-class wives had to work. A Bureau of Labor report revealed them “engaged in 842 different callings, including the making of artificial flowers, awnings and tents, bookbinding, cigars, printing offices, etc.” Of course, the wages for laboring women were less than those of their male counterparts. The national average in 1889 was measured at $5.24 a week, but most women earned less. Housemaids were paid about $4 per week; manufacturers of artificial flowers made $3.25; and the starting salary for workers at the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory was $1.50.

At work making cigars c.1909; Image Courtesy New York Public Library

In 1902, the New York Bureau of Labor Statistics decided that $520 a year was the lowest income to allow for subsistence, though that was “hardly adequate.” This was too meager, replied a spokesman for organized labor, who suggested that even $600 was “insufficient to maintain a proper standard of living in New York City.” In 1914, the New York Times estimated that “an income of between $1,100 and $1,200 is probably necessary for an average family to maintain unaided a normal standard of living … and proper conditions of family life.” By then, however, the average wage for men had fallen to $10.17 a week.

Despite building codes and pure-food laws, the general plight of the city’s people seemed to be getting steadily bleaker. In 1912,  the head of New York’s largest charity organization remarked, “if the cost of living increases without a corresponding increase in earnings, the term ‘poor’ must embrace a larger group each year.”

The metropolis had made enormous progress in half a century. “The great transit system of the three boroughs has annihilated distance,” a reporter wrote in 1907, “so that houses twelve miles away from City Hall are nearer to it in point of time than were Brooklyn dwellings three miles distant a dozen years ago.” Rising into the ranks of the middle class no longer seemed like an outright impossibility as second- and third-generation immigrants began to move from the Lower East Side to Upper Manhattan and the outer boroughs. But for the laboring majority, the basic equation of income and expenditures remained depressingly consistent. In 1913 as in 1863, New York City was still a challenging place to feed a family and make a home.

-- Posted by Thai Jones