At first glance, this museum looks like just many brownstone building on this Lower East Side block . . . and that's exactly the point. The first-ever National Trust for Historic Preservation site that was not the home of someone rich or famous, the Tenement Museum's first building was preserved to tell the story of the immigrants who once lived in here (97 Orchard St.). Those stories are rich and varied: This five-story tenement housed some 10,000 people from 25 countries between 1863 and 1935. A visit here makes an excellent follow-up to Ellis Island. In 2017, the museum added another building (103 Orchard) so that it could tell the stories of more recent immigrants to the United States, including a married couple who were Holocaust survivors.
Visits to the museum are by hour-long guided tour (the Shop Life tour is 1.5 hours). Visitors have a choice of six programs, each of which illuminates the lives of different sorts of tenants: from 19th century garment workers who did piecework in their apartment, to a family that survived not one but two depressions, to the German family that ran a saloon in the basement. The Victoria Confino tour features an actor, in costume, playing a teenage Italian émigré; this is the one to pick if you’re traveling with children.The newest program, called Under One Roof is set in the museum’s second building, covering families that lived there between the 1940’s and the 1980’s. While I thought it was a worthwhile addition to the roster of tours, it’s best for repeat visitors. Most first-timers will prefer learning about the earlier history of the area in the original building (which is also a more evocative space). Tours are not appropriate for children under 7 and some are only for those 12 and up; see the website for details. The museum also offers walking tours of the neighborhood (pair one with one of the programs above for a 40% discount), culinary experiences, tours combined with “talk back” sessions, and rotating exhibits. Tours are limited in number and sell out quickly, so it’s smart to buy tickets in advance.
The museum also offers walking tours of the neighborhood, culinary experiences, tours combined with "talk back" sessions, and rotating exhibits. Tours are limited in number and sell out quickly, so it pays to buy tickets in advance.