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Poverty Preserved

A 19th-century apartment house is restored as the Lower East Side Tenement Museum.

Project: Lower East Side Tenement Museum, New York, NY

Architect: Perkins Eastman, New York, NY; with Li-Saltzman Architects, New York, NY

Contractors: Fame Construction Inc., Astoria, NY; KC Renovations, Montgomery, NY

By Eve M. Kahn

It's not every day that an architecture firm's client asks for a restoration project to produce a building that looks like it was never fixed up at all. Such is the unusual mindset of the Lower East Side Tenement Museum, a client of the New York City architecture firm Perkins Eastman since 2005, and the owner of an 1864 apartment house on Manhattan's Lower East Side. Inside this National Historic Landmark at 97 Orchard Street, the Tenement Museum has created half a dozen simulations of immigrants' homes, which attract some 140,000 visitors per year. Behind the convincing patinas throughout the interiors, crews supervised by Perkins Eastman have undetectably reinforced and upgraded the infrastructure.

"It's been a fascinating adventure of a project," says Nicholas Leahy, a Perkins Eastman principal and the restoration's lead designer. "The museum staff is literally forensic about our work. They analyze everything with amazing intensity – they'll bag up and sift through the demolition dust."

That dust is worth poring through because so little has changed within the brick shell of 97 Orchard over the past century. Lucas Glockner, a German Lutheran immigrant, developed the 20-apartment building in the 1860s and then lived there amid German and Irish tenants for a decade or two. He maintained the place well, but successor landlords lost interest in the 325-sq.ft. units, which grew crowded with families newly arrived from Eastern and Central Europe and the Mediterranean. The owners didn't renovate much when a family moved out, slapping up some more wallpaper and linoleum. When city housing codes required improvements in the early 1900s, the landlords perfunctorily added tiny water closets and windowed internal partitions.

In 1935, when housing code updates required fireproofing in the tenement's hallways and stairwells, the landlords at 97 Orchard decided that the investment wouldn't pay off; they simply shuttered the upper floors and rented out just the street-level storefronts. The museum's staff stumbled upon this time capsule in 1988 while looking for office and gallery space to rent. The curators have since painstakingly replicated six homes of families who, according to census and other government records as well as genealogical research, actually lived there. Visitors tour through versions of the probable décor just after something dramatic has happened: an Irish-American infant or Lithuanian-Jewish patriarch has just died, an Italian family is about to be evicted. Period clothing hangs from wall hooks, fake food is arrayed on the tables and keening sounds, lullabies or protest songs play from hidden speakers.

The docents also lead groups through a dozen empty, un-renovated apartments, where plaster is bulging and linoleum and wallpaper are peeling. "The decay is incredibly beautiful," Leahy says. His firm has spent four years stabilizing that decay and the surrounding building envelope. When the project began in 2005, he recalls, "The roof was coming free from the load-bearing walls. It was bouncy when we first went up there. To wedge in supports at either ends of the timber beams, we had to send up a small workman, crawling up through the ceiling joists." The brick façade was fortunately sound, he adds, although the brownstone lintels required some re-pointing and the window sash on the upper floors, long sealed with tin, had to be re-glazed. When long-blocked sunlight spilled again into the apartments on the fourth and fifth floors, it revealed dangerous, expanding lumps in the plaster and ceilings. Based on advice from the New York firm Jablonski Building Conservation, the contractors have inserted clear plastic tabs and metal washers to maintain the lumps at their current sizes.

In one fourth-floor apartment, however, the crumbling surfaces have been brought back to their nearly new appearance. Last summer, the museum unveiled a rendition of an 1869 apartment for an Irish family headed by Joseph Moore, a waiter/bartender. (Government and church records show that he and his wife Bridget lived at 97 Orchard with their three daughters for a year, and one of the girls died there of marasmus, a form of malnutrition.) Kevin Groves, head of KC Renovations of Montgomery, NY, has reinforced the Moores' walls with redwood beams, rough-cut lath and square-cut nails, all slathered in genuine horsehair plaster and blue or white calcimine paint, plus some faux-grain trim. The materials and color palette was based on some 1,500 paint and plaster samples that the museum scraped from the walls. Groves even modeled his working methods after mid-19th-century practices: he carried the buckets of water and plaster up to the fourth-floor walk-up, and rubbed the horsehair tufts between his hands so the strands would scatter evenly across the mix. "It's a very tricky material to work with – on humid days, it can clump and cure too fast," says Groves. The whole project, he adds, "has been exhausting but satisfying work."

As the crews excavated the tenement's worn linoleum, wallpaper and floorboards, they occasionally made archaeological discoveries, including 1930s newspapers, 1920s sheet music, a tin case for Victrola needles and an armless wooden doll. Much more likely still lurks behind the lath, since Perkins Eastman disrupted as little historic fabric as possible. "We mounted the sprinkler pipes on the surface, just as the landlords a hundred years ago would have handled the gas and plumbing pipes," says Leahy. "We wove the electrical system around partitions, and we only lifted floorboards and made holes in the plaster when that was absolutely necessary." No electricity is visible in the Moores' unit, just faux kerosene sconces – they're actually LEDs, with Plexiglas wicks. "The transformer is hidden under a piece of furniture," says Leahy. "The staff can adjust the glow however they need to, and turn it up high when they're cleaning the place after hours."

Perkins Eastman is now gearing up to help expand the museum's displays over the next few years. In the basement, a German immigrant's saloon will be re-created, and wood-walled privies will be rebuilt in the backyard – their 1860s brick basins, which flushed into a city sewer system, were considered high-tech at the time. A few doors away, at 103 Orchard Street, another brick tenement will be adapted into a visitor center, shop, galleries, classrooms and performance spaces. Although this future annex was inhabited until recently, and not a shuttered time capsule like 97 Orchard, its landlords were not particularly careful stewards.

"We've had to pin back the façade, which was coming away from the side walls," says Leahy. "And the apartments have turned out to be strange shells within shells. Nothing's level, and we're finding real floors hidden four inches below existing floors, moldings hidden behind drywall, and doors hidden in partitions. Every day, there are more artifacts to document and save."  

 

 

 
 

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