If Walls Could Talk

A restored tenement offers a window on city history

The apartment is set up to show the family as it sat shivah in July 1918, when Abraham died at 47. On a high chest of drawers next to the feather bed are a bottle of Piso's Cure for Consumption, cupping cups, and a sputum vial designed to contain the contagion. In the kitchen, an inhaler and a bottle of creosote tincture sit on shelves above a coal-burning stove, which is topped with a gas burner. (Tenants fed quarters into a gas meter in their kitchens, buying a supply that would run the lamps and stove for about a week.)

One of the most remarkable restorations is the wallpaper in the front room, where curators decided that the 14th layer of paper was most likely the top layer at the time of Rogarshevsky's death (apartments in 97 Orchard Street average 15 to 22 layers of paper). The renowned wall-covering designers Scalamandre Silks donated their services to re-create the burgundy paper with an ecru-colored pattern. The company now sells the paper (called Rogarshevsky Scroll) only to designers, who sell it for about $110 a roll— about eight times the Rogarshevskys' monthly rent in 1918.

After Abraham's death, the family changed its name to Rosenthal. Fannie became the building's super, since the two commercial spaces remained occupied, and as such lived there until 1941— six years after her other neighbors had been forced out. The family's three-decade tenancy is likely the longest at 97 Orchard Street.

When Fannie Rosenthal left the old tenement, she moved into a brand-new apartment in the Vladek Houses on Jackson Street. Vladek was one of the city's first public housing projects. At the time, projects were held out as a model for housing poor and working-class people. They were thought to be a solution to the troubles of tenements.

J.A. Lobbia is a volunteer research associate at the Tenement Museum.

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