illustration of the tenement museum


Millions of Americans can trace their ancestry back to tenements like this one.

Take a look inside to see how the Tenement Museum has preserved its history

This story contains audio. Listen as you scroll.

In the middle of the 19th century, hundreds of thousands of new Americans flooded into New York. They found homes in buildings like this one, on Orchard Street on Manhattan’s Lower East Side, where the population density in some neighborhoods approached nearly a quarter-million people per square mile by the mid 1860s.

Architecturally, 97 Orchard St. was simple and indistinguishable from thousands of other utilitarian structures. Today, it is preserved by the Tenement Museum, an innovative public history organization. Inside, visitors can see relics and reminders of one of the most consequential migrations in human history, a flood tide of humanity that changed the fabric of America.

For decades, tenement dwellers had only basic protection from fire but almost none from disease. As public understanding of contagious disease improved, housing laws in 1879 and 1901 helped spur incremental changes. “The Tenement acts were not about comfort, but about public health,” says Dave Favaloro, the Tenement Museum’s senior director of curatorial affairs.

Step into its cramped spaces to follow this brick structure along the y-axis of time, as landlords and residents grappled with such diseases as tuberculosis, cholera and influenza, — and as the fear of fire and bad air, even immigrants themselves, left indelible marks on its design and structure.


Archie William Friedberg, 97 Orchard resident 1914-18 | recorded in 1992.

Audio courtesy of the Tenement Museum

Among the busiest spaces in this crowded building was this basement saloon, operated by John and Caroline Schneider, a German couple, from 1864 to 1886. Today, it contains a map of Germany, sheet music and musical instruments. Beer gardens and saloons were essential social glue for German immigrants, yet others saw them as sites of drunkenness and lechery and worried about their impact on “traditional” American values.

The Schneiders lived and worked in the same basement space, and Caroline likely would have prepared food for her clients in this kitchen, next to the public room. Both died of tuberculosis, Caroline in 1885 and John in 1892.

In the 1860s, disease was an urgent fear, and rife in New York’s tenements. Tuberculosis was endemic in the city, but in the years after the Schneiders’ deaths, scientific understanding of how the contagion spread would expand. In addition, progressives used changes to the law, architecture and urban design to fight disease.

Among the most feared was cholera, spread by human waste. To access a toilet, patrons of the Schneiders’ bar, like residents of the apartments above, would have had to make their way to the backyard.

Step into what would have been a small, dark and smelly exterior courtyard to see the minimal plumbing this building offered when it was new.


When 97 Orchard St. was built, the only bathrooms were here, behind the building, and the only source of fresh water for the 22 apartments was this hydrant, attached to the municipal water system. The facilities here, which used a separate water source rather than a ground well, were considered more sanitary than those in many other buildings in the area.

When this building was still used as a tenement house, the backyard would have been much darker and more enclosed because it faced the rear of another tenement, torn down in 1930-31. And yet it also was a space where neighbors would encounter each other directly, whether they wanted to or not.

The tenement at 97 Orchard St. appealed to the museum’s founders in part because the building behind it had been torn down. That allowed street access to the back of the museum and room for this modern external staircase, which provides egress.

The museum works to balance today’s safety demands while preserving the interiors as much as possible. Some apartments have also been left exactly as they were found, after years of decay. Others have been re-created to represent a particular time period. The Tenement Museum doesn’t preserve this building to represent a single historical moment but, rather, a cross-section of different times.

Step into an apartment preserved as it would have looked in 1910, with some basic improvements to living conditions.


Around 1890, the landlords at 97 Orchard St. installed windows between the parlor and the kitchen to increase airflow and light, at the time thought to help reduce TB outbreaks. They were also likely trying to make their spaces more attractive in the competitive world of short-term tenement rentals. At the same time, there was a larger movement to improve conditions in New York’s tenements. In 1901, a new tenement law required indoor plumbing and gas lighting.

Archie William Friedberg, 97 Orchard resident 1914-18 | recorded in 1992.

Audio courtesy of the Tenement Museum

Apartments on the south side of the building were made smaller to include two water closets off the hall.

An air shaft was built to eliminate odors from the toilets. Walls were moved, and some tenants had less space. As of 1905, when these water closets were installed, the residents of this apartment no longer had to descend to the basement level to use the bathroom.

This door, at the rear of what is known as the Levine family apartment, allowed residents to move between the front and the back of the building in case of fire. The door was supposed to be kept unlocked, which meant privacy had to be negotiated between neighbors. Lines between private and public space were fluid, and children who grew up in buildings like this one remember using the city as a playground when conditions were cramped at home.

Archie William Friedberg, 97 Orchard resident 1914-18 | recorded in 1992.

Audio courtesy of the Tenement Museum

To build public support for reform, progressive activists often represented New York’s tenements as dark, overcrowded and dangerous. They were, but they also were homes, and often workplaces. The Levine family used this room as both a living and garment-making space. An 1892 inspector’s report indicated that there were three employees working full-time in this front room to make dresses, putting in 10-hour shifts.

In 1924, the fear of immigrants reached a peak, and the United States passed the Johnson-Reed Act, barring most immigrants from Asia and cutting by 80 percent arrivals from countries in Europe. In 1934, New York required landlords to replace wooden stairs with brick or masonry. Fewer immigrants, stricter housing codes and upward social mobility depressed demand for apartments in such buildings. A year later, the owner of 97 Orchard St. evicted his remaining tenants and closed the upper-floor apartments, leaving only a few businesses on the lower two levels. For more than half a century, these apartments fell into ruin, until the Tenement Museum moved in and started to re-create the lives of the building’s former occupants.

Millions of Americans can trace their ancestry back to buildings like this one, and collective memory frequently softens the narrative. Conditions were often dire, and disease rampant, and tenement laws were driven as much by xenophobia as by genuine concern for the poor. The fear of outsiders, often associated with actual and metaphorical disease, continues to shape Americans’ views of their own identity and security. Today, these buildings are part of a thriving neighborhood, with many apartments joined to create larger, more habitable spaces. And the Tenement Museum continues its mission to preserve and memorialize the lives, not of the great and famous, but of ordinary Americans who did their best to make this place home.


An earlier version of this story incorrectly said that among the effects of the Johnson-Reed Act of 1924 was a cut by 80 percent of immigrant arrivals from the Western Hemisphere. The act effectively cut immigrant arrivals from many countries in Europe. The story has been corrected.

About this story

Kolin Pope is a three-time Emmy nominated animator and director whose work in documentary and journalism has been featured in The Washington Post, NBC News and Vice. He lives in Portland, Ore.

Editing by Jenna Pirog, Amy Hitt, Elite Truong. Audio editing and original score by Ted Muldoon. Copy editing by Adrienne Dunn. Photogrammetry and laser scanning by SOE Studio.

This story uses photogrammetry, a noncontact, nondestructive technique that records the exact size and shape of existing spaces and objects by combining thousands of images to output a 3-D rendering of a space. The Post used a lidar scanner, drones and handheld cameras to scan and photograph all sides of the building and rooms on location at the Tenement Museum on the lower east side of Manhattan. We used Reality Capture to process the images, clean up and output a 3-D model, and Cinema 4D to customize the lighting and animate the 3-D sequences.

Some cleanup of the models is required for purposes of formatting, authenticity, and visual clarity, especially of features that do not render well with the technique. As a result, some objects, like the gas lighting hanging from the ceiling, appear to have holes in them. The water closet we scanned is located on the Museum’s second floor, and was added to the third floor in post-production.

Philip Kennicott is the Pulitzer Prize-winning art and architecture critic of The Washington Post. He has been on staff at The Post since 1999, first as classical music critic, then as culture critic.
Lo Bénichou is a creative technologist and joined The Washington Post in 2020.
Shikha Subramaniam is a UX, UI designer and strategic thinker at The Lede Lab, The Washington Post's experimental news team. She specializes in emerging technology and experimental storytelling.