Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Rear Yard Now Open!

This week the Lower East Side Tenement Museum is proud to announce the opening of “The Rear Yard at 97 Orchard Street,” a permanent exhibit that immerses visitors in a mid-19th century tenement yard. The exhibit – the first re-creating an urban American privy yard – explores important aspects of daily life in 19th-century urban America and sanitation reform efforts in the tenements.

The yard is finally complete! Above: recreated privy shed, or outhouse.

As part of the Tenement Museum’s tour The Moores: An Irish Family in America, the “Rear Yard of 97 Orchard Street” is recreated to depict 1869, six years after the building welcomed its first residents. The space includes a wooden privy shed (outhouse) with four individual stalls; a cast-iron water hydrant; original paving stones; a wood plank fence; and reproduction period laundry hanging from lines overhead.

 Workers install paving stones, artifacts that were excavated from 97 Orchard's rear yard in 1991.

From 1863 until 1905, when indoor plumping was installed at 97 Orchard Street, the yard was an extension of the tenement household, a space for residents to use the toilet, pump water for cooking and bathing, and wash laundry. The yard also served a social function as a space for women to socialize with one another and for children to play.

The recreation of the yard was completed with the help of period photographs, many taken by the Tenement House Department in around the turn of the 20th century. In addition, the Museum used research from urban archeologist Joan Geismar, whose team excavated 97 Orchard Street’s rear yard between 1991 and 1993.

Expecting to find the “ubiquitous, round, deep, dry-laid, stone-privy pit documented through archaeology in other 19th century urban rear yards,” the team was surprised to instead find the remnants of a water-cleansed brick privy vault believed to date from the building’s construction. The building’s financer and first owner, Lucas Glockner, was “a man ahead of his time when it came to backyard toilet facilities,” according to Geismar. (There were no laws governing outhouse construction in New York until the 1867 Tenement House Act.)

This physical investigation suggests that for 97 Orchard Street’s early residents, conditions were probably much more pleasant than the stereotype of tenement life might suggest. But, by 1900, 97 Orchard Street’s privies were shared by 105 tenants, living in eighteen apartments. Around 17 people shared each toilet. All of the building’s residents also shared a single water hydrant.

Beginning in the mid-19th century, tenement rear yards became the subject of an intense public debate about the relationship between sanitary technology, immigrant hygiene, and the public health. For middle-class reformers, the rear yard was ground zero for the linked threats of epidemic disease, social disorder, and moral degradation.

Visitors to the Tenement Museum’s The Moores: An Irish Family in America tour will explore both the yard’s role in the city-wide housing reform efforts and its practical importance in the private lives of working-class New Yorkers.

Public tours are offered daily, 10:45 am – 4:45 pm. Tickets are available at the Visitor Center, 108 Orchard Street; online at; or by phone at 866-606-7232.

We hope you will come for a visit and learn about this important space in person. And some day soon we will add it to our virtual tour!

- Posted by Kate

1 comment:

  1. Looking forward to visiting the yard when the weather warms up. The Tenement Museum never fails to amaze with their innovative projects -- an ongoing source of information -- adding to the layers of history being uncovered on the Lower East Side. I'm proud to have my book, The Lower East Side Remembered and Revisited (Columbia University Press. 2009)on sale at the gallery shop -- with its huge selection the best place to buy NYC books available anywhere in the city. Joyce Mendelsohn


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