Breaking Into Immigrant Stories

Since 1992, stories of German and Irish immigrants who lived in the 1800s have come to life at the Tenement Museum on the Lower East Side. It's about to get bigger.

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Ramonita Saez circa 1969 in her apartment at 103 Orchard Street

Since 1992, stories of German and Irish immigrants who lived in the 1800s have come to life at the Tenement Museum on the Lower East Side. The museum offers a trip to the past through tours of restored tenement apartments and neighborhood walking tours.  

The museum is about to get bigger. Thursday, a ceremonial groundbreaking for its expansion took place, ushering in a new chapter of the museum that will focus on three families – the Epsteins, who were Holocaust survivors, the Saezes, a Puerto Rican family, and the Wongs, who emigrated from Hong Kong. The exhibit will be housed above the museum store and will feature three apartments where the families actually lived. Their stories show how immigration has a big part in New York’s history and our society today.

“It’s like you pull back the curtain and catch a real glimpse of life in New York City in a different era,” said Council Member Daniel Garodnick (D – Fourth District). “It shows the different kinds of people that came here and how similar their stories are no matter where they came from.”

Entitled “Beyond the Melting Pot,” the exhibit will be divided by each family’s apartment, showcasing a different era of history as it took place in the building, which is located at 103 Orchard Street.

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Bluma and Bella Epstein circa 1950s outside 103 Orchard Street

The tenement was built in 1888 and housed 15 apartments. When the museum purchased the building in 2007 it had a master plan to renovate the first floor as a museum store with the expansion project further down the pipeline.

“The museum has a very effective way of presenting history,” said Morris Vogel, the Tenement Museum president. “The story of the people that lived in this building is the story of recent immigrants.”

The exhibit begins with the Epsteins who were part of the first refugee program that fled to America from Germany in the 1950s. The Saezes moved into the building in the 1960s and the Wongs lived in the tenement from 1968 until 2014.

“Every cultural institution has a unique perspective and I would argue that these guys have the most unique perspective that I have ever worked with,” said Nicholas Leahy, an architect from Perkins Eastman Architects. “I tend to think of them as the CSI of historians.”

According to Leahy, he and the museum’s research team had to figure out a way to work with the history of the building. They first reorganized the space to make sure that it is a safe place to visit and walk through. And then made adjustments to make it historically correct, like moving the position of a staircase.

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Yat Ping Wong circa 1960s and a mahjong playing piece recently found at 103 Orchard Street

During the three months of renovation, they found artifacts in the building. A Mahjong playing piece, for example, that looks like a dice with Chinese characters in red, even religious iconography in an apartment on the third floor.

“The middle apartment is a unique piece of evidence of immigration in this city,” said Leahy who has been working with the museum for over 10 years now. “Because literally it has had all different faiths of people living there. And there’s a great example of a door that at one point it had a Buddhist temple, it’s got a Christian cross, it’s got the Jewish symbols on it.”

The museum has been doing research on the history of the building for the past six years now. According to Vogel, the museum’s president, the research team first looked at the rent rolls over the years. For the Jewish family, it went to the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society Archives at the American Jewish Historical Society.

“We wanted to see if the people that they brought over from the death camps, if any of them lived in this building, and we found one,” said Vogel who immigrated to America in 1949. “The other families were easier because they had lived in the building in the 1980s to the 1990s.”

The exhibit is set to open in the summer of 2017 with the stories of the immigrant families and how they made a home in New York City.

“We are doing this expansion because this country needs to know how much it is an immigrant nation,” said Vogel. “And that immigration is not just something that happened a hundred years ago. Immigration continues today.”

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