Tenements, Tourists, and Treatments: Managing Visitor Impact at the Lower East Side Tenement Museum

Stephanie Hoagland


When a building housed some 7,000 immigrants over the course of 72 years, how do you deal with the impacts of 200,000 visitors every year? New York’s Lower East Side Tenement Museum is one of the most popular house museums in America which essentially translates to 400,000 feet tracking in dirt and climbing the stairs, 400,000 hands touching the walls, 2-million fingers aching to pick at loose paint and wallpaper, 200,000 mouths breathing hot air, and 50,000 students wanting to get “just a little bit closer” annually. The Tenement Museum is a five-story brick building located in a neighborhood densely packed with tenements and factories which has historically served as a starting point for those new to the United States. Between its construction in 1863 and the 1930s immigrants from over 20 countries lived in the tiny apartments that made up 97 Orchard Street. Instead of making additional alterations to meet changing housing codes, the landlord evicted the tenants in 1935 and sealed off the upper floors, which remained uninhabited until 1988 when the museum took over the building. As a result, these apartments became time capsules of immigrant life in America. The museum is unique in both its interpretation of the building and its occupants over time and its treatment of the ruin apartments in a state of “arrested decay” with their peeling wallpaper, curled plaster, bare wood, and faded linoleum. In addition to retaining the authenticity of the apartments, retention of these finishes assists in telling the story of the building’s occupants including changes in aesthetic tastes over time.   The use of these “stabilized ruin” apartments on the tours presents a special challenge, not only for interpretation, but also visitor comfort and safety, the development of conservation treatments, and general maintenance of the finishes. The building has no air conditioning and the small cramped apartments get excruciatingly hot in the summer. When the threat of a visitor passing out after climbing five flights of stairs is not an uncommon occurrence in the summer, is the free cardboard fan handed out at the beginning of the tour enough? The building was never designed to handle the vibrations of hundreds of thousands of people climbing the stairs and walking the halls. When sections of the ceiling have started to fall, is consolidating a room or two per year sufficient to preserve the historic fabric? What is the best way to keep people from picking at the peeling paint and paper on the walls? Should it be an elaborate barricade, or can something simple be just as effective? How important is training the janitorial staff? Is it just about sweeping the floors, or should they be trained to be on the lookout for pests or areas of concern such as paint chips or plaster dust on the floor. This paper will explore how the museum overcame many of the technical and practical challenges of conserving and maintaining this one of a kind house museum.

2020 | Online | Volume 27