The Changing Face of an American Tenement

[The Lower East Side Tenement Museum tells the stories of immigrants who lived in 97 Orchard Street, a tenement built in 1863 on Manhattan’s Lower East Side. However, it is also fascinating to study because of what it can teach us about building forms — how they are constructed by societies, and how they construct the people who live within them. This is a short attempt to place 97 Orchard Street within a historical perspective; it is not exhaustive. Unless otherwise noted, all photos are courtesy of the museum.]

97 Orchard Street, front facade
97 Orchard Street, front facade

On 17 October 1874, Nathalie Gumpertz’s life altered dramatically – her husband of ten years, Julius, never returned from work and she was left to fend for herself and her children. It was an all too common story, however, and the Jewish widow eventually entered the dressmaking trade to provide for her family.1 Nathalie Gumpertz’s story resonates through the ages not so much for its unfortunate typicality – by all rights it should be lost to the ages, buried under similar and worse tales – but because she and her children were residents of 97 Orchard Street in Manhattan’s Lower East Side.

Built in 1863 by Lukas Glockner, the tenement house that provided cheap housing to new immigrants between 1863 and 1935 is now The Lower East Side Tenement Museum; its curators and interpreters have resurrected the lives of five families who lived in the building during the course of its seventy-two year occupancy, Gumpertz’s among them.2 However, at the time it was built it was only one of several tenements with minimal exterior embellishment built to house multiple working-class families. Practically anathema to the result of the United States, multifamily housing had become a necessity in New York City due to the massive flood of immigrants entering the country during and after the 1840s and because land was quickly becoming scarce. What land was available was often expensive, so it became practical to build upward reaching buildings and not sprawling monstrosities. And although still considered an ambiguous choice for those concerned with upholding or building a middle-class identity, for the working-class (which accounted for approximately sixty-two percent of New York’s postbellum population) the tenement offered inexpensive accommodations for those who could only dream of owning a home. 3 As such, 97 Orchard Street and the urban tenement in general are an architectural and socio-cultural type that must be examined in the appropriate contexts in order to better understand the changing nature of the multifamily American home in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

Cultural Constructions that Construct Culture: The Class, Gender and Ethnic Implications of 97 Orchard Street

Buildings are the products of human culture; conversely, the same buildings also create, recreate and reinforce human cultural values.4 A given society constructs houses, for example, that will support its ideas and structuring of family life and, in turn, the houses then reflect and mould the values of the children raised within its walls. The ‘home values’ (family privacy, identity and morality) of nineteenth century native-born Americans revolved primarily around the concept of private homes and home ownership, but the increasingly crowded urban centres such as New York forced these people to make allowances even as they clung to the deeply held ideal. That middle-class apartment buildings blurred the lines between the middle and working classes indicates that multifamily housing such as tenements were considered lower class, and that was indeed the case.5 What, then, made them so?

One answer embodies the idea that buildings are cultural constructions that construct culture. When the middle-class began to accept the need for apartments, they insisted that the units adhere to middle-class values by nature of their construction. The apartment building itself should reflect a particular style (it is worth mentioning that the middle-class angst over multifamily housing coincided with a period of architectural eclecticism) and the units were to replicate, as much as possible, the physical spaces of private homes.6 The tenement units in use at the time did not meet middle-class requirements for reinforcing middle-class status and values; historically, much of working-class housing was indeed substandard in terms of amenities, conveniences and space-per-person, but few had viable alternatives. However, the allocation and organisation of space was an important factor in determining differences in class values. 97 Orchard Street had four units per floor, two at the front and two along the back, each with three rooms: a front room, a kitchen and a back room/bedroom.7 While far from the Anglo-Saxon middle-class ideal that promoted a formal front parlour, dining room, kitchen and bedrooms – all of which existed as an environment separate from that of the working/economic world – the tenement units did reinforce some working-class immigrant values. Many immigrants were from rural areas and thus used to sleeping several people to a room (and a bed), and Irish, Italian and Jewish women frequently did laundry and assisted with family businesses from adjoining quarters. The kitchen was not only a place where food was prepared but a room for eating, family gatherings, sewing, reading/homework and other assorted chores. This reinforced the cultural values about home, community and gender roles that they brought to the United States from their native lands. For them, the layout of tenement units was not only acceptable but also normal.8

The sharp distinction between private and public spaces within the home was an obsession with the Anglo-Saxon middle-class but of lesser importance to the working-class, especially the immigrant working-class who had a different set of home values. Native-born Americans of the middle-class saw the home as a refuge from the world, a separate sphere where women were protected from the horrors of the working world; working-class immigrants, especially women from Southern Europe, viewed the homes as a part of a community. As such, what the middle-class perceived as a lack of privacy in tenements like 97 Orchard Street was seen by its tenants as an important part of community socialisation. The passages between units thus served much the same purpose as alleys, allowing occupants to reconstruct the social and cultural worlds with which they were familiar.9 Kinship and networks were forged through a shared use of space where contact was necessary, so the tenement became the village and the alley the common fields. Tenement units were thus as important to working-class immigrant cultural values as the rigidly defined private home was to native-born Americans.10 Both were constructed by a particular culture’s ideas about class, work, family and gender and served to reinforce that culture’s ideas.

Uniquely American? The Tenement Building as a House Type

House types are distinctly different from house styles – type refers to a basic form and design while style often relates to exterior details such as pitch and shape of the roof and the presence (or lack) of decorative moulding and other elements such as arches or turrets. Types and subtypes are relatively fixed in form, subject to change by cultural processes but at a very slow rate and then only very cautiously.11 The I-house and shotgun are both house types but whereas the I-house is clearly the descendant of the English hall-and-parlour type, the shotgun is considered uniquely American because it is a variation on an impermanent West African housing type that could have only occurred in the United States.12 Built by slaves and free blacks and defined as being one room wide and three or more rooms deep, possibly with a side hall, and a front facing gable, it has been considered the first true piece of American architecture.13

97 Orchard Street, front facade, 1870
97 Orchard Street, front facade, 1870

However, the tenement building is also an American variation on an imported idea and falls within the parameters cited above. Multifamily housing was and remains common among all classes in large European cities such as Paris, but the home values of nineteenth-century Anglo-Saxon Americans posited the single family residence as the ideal, thus relegating multifamily housing to the working-class. These early “tenements” were not buildings erected especially for working-class families but were in actuality ad hoc multifamily housing created out of formerly private homes that were sold or abandoned when the previous occupants moved.14 Tenements, buildings erected with the express intent of housing multiple families on each floor, did not begin to emerge until after the influx of immigrants during/after the 1840s. And while certainly based on the urban European tradition of multiple family dwellings that housed many classes of people at different levels, the tenement building in America was constructed to house only one class of person – the working-class.15 Thus, like the shotgun house, the tenement building is a uniquely American idea in that it was built on imported roots for a specific section of society.

Unlike the Parisian Buildings or “French flats” and later middle-class apartment houses, tenements such as 97 Orchard Street were constructed with less thought to privacy and modern living and more emphasis on economy for tenants and quick and high returns for owners/landlords. Calvert Vaux’s proposed four floor building design for “French flats” included not only enclosed split-level units with ceilings nine to twelve feet high, it also included an intricately (if still restrained) detailed Italianate exterior.16 97 Orchard Street, however, while also containing Italianate elements such as arches over the front windows and a projecting cornice, was a much more simple building. Built for a total cost of eight-thousand dollars in 1863 by Lukas Glockner, himself an immigrant, the building was intended as a tenement for immigrant families who needed cheap accommodations. That in doing so he earned approximately a twenty-percent return on his investment was also an incentive. However, while the three room units were small with good ventilation only in the front room, Glockner papered the walls of the units and often provided carpet and the occasional wall-painting to entice prospective tenants into leasing and to provide them with at least the semblance of comfort.17 These were mere contrivances, though; it was the construction of the building as a tenement, with the emphasis on its form as opposed to its style, that made it acceptable only to working-class families.

The “Cultural Weathering” of 97 Orchard Street

Natalie Gumpertz
Natalie Gumpertz

“Cultural weathering” is the term used to explain the changes in a particular place over time, whether those changes are physical, material or socio-cultural.18 As previously discussed, buildings are social and cultural constructions; however, the context and meaning of buildings can and do change over time. That change is called “cultural weathering” and reflects not only the physical changes to the structure but also the uses and meanings given to it and to the interior floor plan by its inhabitants. Tenements, as vernacular architecture, are a response to the localised needs of those who live in the region or borough; as such, it would be strange if the uses of the units did not change with the occupants.19 One of the first notable instances of “cultural weathering” at 97 Orchard Street occurred when Nathalie Gumpertz began her dressmaking business. The unit in which she resided with her children was no longer simply a place to live once she bought a sewing machine on credit and began filling orders, it was where she conducted her business and made a living.20 Thus the unit took on a new meaning to her and to those around her; in choosing to work out of her home, Gumpertz redefined her environment – its sense of place and its home values – for both herself and her children as well as for her neighbours.

In 1935, the tenement at 97 Orchard Street was shuttered and the last of its tenants ejected when the landlord could not comply with the new regulations (requiring plumbing and proper ventilation be added to each unit) instituted by the newly formed New York City Housing Authority.21 This marked an obvious and very distinct shift in the life of the building; the structure erected to provide cheap housing for working-class families no longer did so (although it very likely had squatters at some point along the way). The building sat vacant, exposed to the ravages of time and the elements until it was chosen as the site of the Lower East Side Tenement Museum, and this last shift is perhaps the most radical. Although its curators and specialists have worked to restore the building and some of its units to a particular moment in time, its new incarnation as a museum is the antithesis of its original purpose. Though the structure itself is still a specific type, a tenement, it no longer functions in that capacity and as it plays a new role in the community it must therefore be evaluated through a new lens. While the builder and designer imbue their creation with meaning, it is the people who occupy the space that define its purpose.22 The museum, while interpreting the building’s past, does not house people nor are its day-to-day occupants and visitors necessarily members of an immigrant working-class. As such, the value and meaning of 97 Orchard Street has changed even if the structure has not. It is a place that has been weathered by culture as well as by time, and continues to evolve as each generation leaves its mark.

Lukas Glocker’s investment was lucrative during his lifetime and continues to be so today. While not always the most convenient or sanitary place to live, the tenement at 97 Orchard Street was home to over seven thousand people during its original period of habitation.23 As a museum it interprets the life of the structure and its former tenants to the public, and in so doing explores the values and ideals that surrounded the concept of multifamily housing the late nineteenth and early twentieth century New York even as it adds another layer of meaning to the old brick building.

1 Lower East Side Tenement Museum, “The Gumpertz Family” <> (19 March 2004).

2 Tenement Museum, “Introduction” <> (19 March 2004).

3 Cromley, Elizabeth Collins. Alone Together: A History of New York’s Early Apartments (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1990) 2.

4 Heath, Kingston William, The Patina of Place: The Cultural Weathering of a New England Industrial Landscape (Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 2001) 185.

5 Cromely, Alone Together, 2-3.

6 Cromely, Alone Together, 4.

7 Tenement Museum, <> (19 March 2004).

8 Cohen, Lizabeth A, “Embellishing a Life of Labor: An Interpretation of the Material Culture of American Working-Class Homes, 1885-1915” in Common Places: Readings in American Vernacular Architecture (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1986) 268-269.

9 Cohen, “Embellishing,” 269; see also, Borchert, James, “Alley Landscapes of Washington” in Common Places: Readings in American Vernacular Architecture (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1986) 284-285.

10 Borchert, “Alley Landscapes,” 286.

11 Vlach, John Michael, “The Shotgun House: An African Architectural Legacy” in Common Places: Readings in American Vernacular Architecture (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1986) 62.

12 Vlach, “Shotgun House,” 70-73.

13 Vlach, “Shotgun House,” 58-59.

14 Cromley, Alone Together, 12-14.

15 Tenement Museum, “Early Tenements,” <> (19 March 2004).

16 Cromley, Alone Together, 28-29.

17 Tenement Museum, “Early Tenements,” <> (19 March 2004).

18 Heath, Patina of Place, xxii-xxiii.

19 Heath, Patina of Place, 181-185.

20 Tenement Museum, “Dressmakers,” <> (19 March 2004).

21 Tenement Museum, “Shuttering the Tenements,” <> (19 March 2004).

22 Heath, Patina of Place, 185.

23 Tenement Museum, “Introduction,” <> (19 March 2004).

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