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 only (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 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 their basement. Best for children is "Victoria Confino," which is less tour than interactive experience, as a costumed teenaged character instructs new "immigrants" (the people on the tour) in a candid, revealing, and totally improvised manner on how to get along in New York. (It sounds hokey, I know, but it’s quite vivid.) Many of the other tours are only offered to those over the age of 12; check before booking.
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.
- Pauline Frommer