If Walls Could Talk


There was an open house for an apartment on Orchard Street last week, and, as usual, people lined up on the sidewalk waiting to see it. Once the heart of the famously teeming Lower East Side, Orchard is fast becoming Downtown’s hippest address, next to Ludlow Street, of course. With apartments fetching high rents, stores like Toys in Babeland and bars like Arlene Grocery nearby, an apartment in this neighborhood is as coveted today as it would have been shunned 100 years ago.

The place being shown, however, was not for rent after all, but there’s no tricky broker to blame for that. Instead, the apartment is a museum piece, a relic in a five-story walk-up at 97 Orchard Street, home of the Lower East Side Tenement Museum. In January 1996, the museum bought the building, where the apartments had been vacant for nearly 60 years; the museum has now restored much of the building to depict tenement life during various periods. Last week, it opened its fourth such exhibit, the apartment where Lithuanian immigrant Abraham Rogarshevsky and his family lived around 1910.

Paying homage to tenements might seem odd, but consider their role in the city’s development. Tenements were the first buildings constructed explicitly to house poor people, and have been home to millions of newcomers since they first appeared around the late 1830s. Indeed, it was the tenement that accommodated the city’s exponential growth for almost 100 years. As Steve Long, director of the museum’s resource and study center, puts it, “The role of the tenement in transforming the city is almost epic.”

Within these warrens, crammed side by side down block after block, tenants lived with scant light or fresh air, and without heat or running water. Until 1901, outdoor privies were standard, and only a few rooms had windows. Overcrowding was rampant, sanitation minimal, and disease spread through the buildings with ease. An 1857 committee investigating tenement conditions declared it “astounding that everyone [living there] doesn’t die of pestilence.”

For the next 70 years, tenements remained a subject of scorn and reform; they were also an early portent of the power of the city’s real estate industry. Just as regularly as plans for the “improvement” of tenements were put forth, they were opposed by landlords. In the late 1850s, lawmakers drafted a bill regulating tenements, but owners and builders made sure that was as far as it got. In 1879, a proposal to regrid the city to improve access to sunlight was shunned because it would crimp landlords’ ability to jam buildings
onto blocks. In 1862, the superintendent of the city’s new department of buildings remarked that, in tenements, “The greatest amount of profit is sought to be realized from the least amount of space with little or no regard for the health, comfort, or protection of the lives of the tenants.”

Tenements persisted, and by the turn of the century, 70 percent of New Yorkers lived in them. Even today, they are home to more than half a million. A city planning department document counted 5561 “old law tenements” (built before 1901) as home to about 0.6 percent of the city’s population in 1994; in 1996, tenements built after 1901 housed 624,958 New Yorkers. As much as the Chrysler or Empire State buildings, tenements are icons of the city.

In its 72 years as a working tenement, 97 Orchard Street was home to 7000 people from 20 countries, including Russia, Syria, Ireland, Turkey, and Egypt. It was built in 1863 by German immigrant tailor Lucas Glockner, with 20 apartments and two commercial spaces.

As technology and tenement reform laws evolved, so did the building: Gas lines were not installed until after the 1890s, cold water was plumbed in after 1895, and toilets were put on each floor in 1905. But it was a 1929 law that spelled the death of 97 Orchard Street as an apartment building.

That year, the city required landlords to install toilets in each apartment. Owners had balked at a 1901 provision to provide toilets on each floor, but ultimately complied because the flow of immigrants was strong enough to make tenements profitable. But by the time of the more stringent 1929 law, immigration restrictions meant fewer tenants, and landlords were making most of their money from renting commercial spaces. Deciding it was cheaper to throw out tenants than put in toilets, some landlords emptied their buildings of all but commercial renters. In 1935, the tenants at 97 Orchard Street moved out, and the upper floors were sealed.

The apartments remained dormant until the Tenement Museum began to restore them. Four are complete: The Confino apartment, occupied by a family of Sephardic Jews in 1916; the Baldizzi apartment, home to Sicilian immigrants in the 1930s; the Gumpertz apartment, where the German Jewish family lived in the 1870s; and, as of last week, the Rogarshevsky apartment.

Abraham Rogarshevsky moved into the three-room, 325-square-foot apartment at 97 Orchard Street around 1910, and the garment presser lived there with his wife, Fannie, their six children, and, according to a 1915 census, a 48-year-old female boarder. Rogarshevsky’s son Henry described how he and his three brothers slept in the “parlor” with their heads on the seat of a couch andtheir legs sprawled on chairs arranged in front of them. Two daughters shared a single cot in the kitchen. A double bed fills the eight-by-seven-foot bedroom, where Fannie and Abraham slept until he became sick with tuberculosis in about 1916.

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.