Tenement Museum: Moore Apartment display

Tenement Museum: A Case Study

New York, NY

A 20-year restoration of Lower East Side tenement buildings reveals the ordinary to tell extraordinary stories of immigration to the United States.

America swelled by millions in the late 1800s thanks to waves of immigration from all over the world, where many would-be citizens were fleeing famine and persecution to seek out a more prosperous future. More than 12 million immigrants arrived between 1870 and 1900, 70 percent of whom flowed through New York City, where they concentrated on the Lower East Side. By 1900, that area had the highest population density in the world, where its residents were crammed into tenements—shabby and poorly built, with scant access to daylight, ventilation, or sanitation. The infamous Tenth Ward, where the Tenement Museum is now located, housed 1,100 people per acre, or 5,500 per block across the ward’s roughly 35 blocks. These tenements that provided shelter and community to so many people and families are an important chapter in the story of New York City. The Tenement Museum uses the building’s architectural fabric and the lives of those who lived there to tell extraordinary stories about this period. As Will Eisner wrote in The Building, his graphic novel about New York,

“Buildings have a kind of soul … These structures, barnacled by laughter and stained by tears, are more than lifeless edifices. It cannot be that having been part of life, they did not somehow absorb the radiation from human interaction.”

Fast forward to 2006. New York’s Tenement Museum had become well established since opening at 97 Orchard Street in 1992. The building provided a nearly unvarnished look into the past, where 7,000 New Yorkers from 20 nations occupied its apartments between 1865 and 1935. After that, its landlord evicted the tenants and sealed the upper floors rather than pay to bring the building up to code.

The apartments sat untouched until 1988, when Ruth Abram and Anita Jacobson stumbled upon the building in their search for a property to house a museum paying tribute to New York’s tenement culture and the immigration stories that defined it. The women couldn’t believe their luck in finding this time capsule, which to this date is the only fully preserved tenement left in the United States.


Project Facts

  • Client:

  • Tenement Museum
  • Size:

  • 97 Orchard Street: 12,000 sf
    91 Orchard Street: 10,000 sf
    103 Orchard Street: 27,650 sf
  • Services:

  • Master Planning, Architecture
  • Services:

  • Branded Environments + Experiential Design
  • Markets:

  • Arts + Culture, Renovation + Historic Buildings
  • Region:

  • United States
  • Studios:

  • New York


  • 2019 AIA New York Design Awards, Merit Award
  • The New York Landmarks Conservancy, Lucy G. Moses Preservation Awards (2019)
  • Architizer A+Awards, Finalist, Architecture + Preservation (2018)
  • Society of the American Registered Architects (SARA) National Design Awards, Award of Merit (2018)
  • SARA NY Design Awards, Award of Honor (2018)
  • NYCxDESIGN Awards, Greater Good, Honoree (2018)
  • NYCxDESIGN Awards, NYC’s Shining Moment, Honoree (2018)
  • The Municipal Art Society of New York, MASterworks Award for Best Restoration (2018)
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    1.0: The master plan for expansion

    The museum’s popularity had spread so much that by 2006, Abram turned to Perkins Eastman to lay out a 20-year master plan for its future. The museum had already purchased 91 Orchard Street next door, which housed its administration spaces on the first and second floors while residents occupied the apartments above. It had also been renting space at various locations for its highly successful store. The master plan proffered a more strategic and phased approach to expanding the museum and sorting out some of the organizational idiosyncrasies that had developed over the years through its startup growth. There was an opportunity around that same time to purchase 103 Orchard, a large building at the corner of Delancey Street, which proved pivotal in the museum’s continued evolution. Its presence on this prominent corner would further anchor it within the Lower East Side community.

    Divided into four five-year phases, the plan’s goal was to create a more urban campus, cement its presence as a neighborhood beacon, provide more exhibits to tell the story of New York City’s early immigrants, and dedicate space for classrooms and additional museum support functions. Taken as a whole, the master plan’s interventions aimed to increase the museum’s prominence within the city and realize its mission of becoming a unique community and civic resource.

    To accomplish these goals, the master plan examined the institution and its assets, and built an approach that organized the buildings into three themes: Exhibit, Support, and Community. The Exhibit theme centered on 97 Orchard, the heart of the museum. Support and administration would be consolidated at 91 Orchard. The plan also recommended the purchase of 103 Orchard to create a gateway and visitor center announcing the museum’s community presence.

    Tenement Museum 20 Year Plan

    This diagram features the Tenement Museum’s programming across its three properties as envisioned in the 20-year master plan.

    1.1: Phased approach to building out for the Future

    Perkins Eastman has gone on to execute each phase of the master plan across all three buildings along Orchard Street.

    Throughout each phase, the team has adhered to three guiding design principles we developed in concert with the museum’s curators and staff:

    • Existing building fabric is central to the narrative, and therefore it should be viewed with a “forensic” lens before anything was stabilized, repaired, renovated, or removed.
    • New additions and interventions into the buildings were to be sensitive but not disguised as to confuse the historical record—to maintain but not detract from the architectural character of the spaces.
    • In apartments restored to a specific time in history, they would be authentic and retain certain areas of record to illustrate each apartment’s historic character.
    Phase 1 Build Out: 97 Orchard Street

    The heart of the museum complex is 97 Orchard Street, a five-story, 25-foot-wide tenement built in 1865. It’s the seed from which the museum has grown into the world-class institution it is today. Through painstaking research, historians have uncovered the stories of all the people who passed through this building. And together with the architect Li Salzman and Jablonski Building Conservation, Inc., through patient collaboration and meticulous care, they set the standard and philosophy for the museum and its work moving forward. That groundwork guided Perkins Eastman’s approach to the master plan and the design and construction that would follow. The first phase of the master plan called for expanding the visitor experience and exhibits at 97 Orchard.

    Having already opened the first, second, and third floors, the museum was now interested in expanding to the fourth and fifth floors, and possibly the basement. Our first charge was to bring the fourth and fifth floors back to life. This first required stabilizing and preserving the historic fabric while installing basic infrastructure to meet modern codes and allow safe public access.

    The Moore Apartment: 1869

    This exhibit involved working with the museum’s curators and their teams to restore one of the fourth-floor apartments to showcase the Moore family.  Joseph and Bridette Moore arrived in New York after surviving the Great Famine in Ireland; they lived at 97 Orchard Street in 1869. Below shows the meticulous lengths the team went to recreate the Moore’s original home from the state in which it was found, untouched since 1939. All the original woodwork was restored and retained:

    Tenement Museum Tenement Museum: Moore Apartment display

    The walls and ceiling were replastered in the restored living area of the Moore’s apartment. The blue color on the walls is calcimine paint, typical of the period. The street windows had to be replaced, while the surrounding frames and millwork are original. During the time the Moores lived there, furthermore, one of their children died amidst a citywide wave of infected powdered infant milk. The exhibit—with a child-sized coffin in the living room—captures these difficult times.

    Tenement Museum: Moore apartment display Tenement Museum 13

    There are four apartments on each floor of the tenement. Outside the Moore apartment, the remaining three on the fourth floor were cleaned, stabilized, and left in a curated stasis of arrested dilapidation.

    Tenement Museum: Stabilized display of original architecture and wall peelings

    When the tenement was occupied, its interior surfaces got progressively covered over the years with 20 layers of wallpaper and 40 layers of paint, while the floors were stacked with countless layers of linoleum.

    There’s an art to stabilizing these apartments in this state. Our team worked closely with the curators and the Jablonski team to pin large areas of cracking plaster into position with clear acrylic washers affixed to structural backing. Broken glass in the interior transoms and glazed partitions were reviewed, fixed in place where appropriate, or removed for safety reasons. Great care was taken to weave the necessary electrical and fire protection systems through the spaces so as not to disrupt their historic fabric.

    Schneider saloon and Max Marcus auction house

    Next on the list was building out the lower levels and rear yard at 97 Orchard. The staff had worked with their team of historic advisors to flesh out concepts for an exhibit that would illustrate the building’s history of commercial life. The resulting “Shop Life” exhibit illustrates two commercial periods: One half depicts Schneider’s Saloon in the 1870s, one of hundreds in the neighborhood that was known as Little Germany in the late 19th century.

    Tenement Museum: Schneider's Saloon display

    A view of Schneider’s Saloon, looking towards the living quarters at the rear. A new connecting stair to the first floor is visible at left. Below: The restored kitchen and living spaces at the rear of the saloon.

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    The other half represents Max Marcus’s auction house from the 1930s. Working with Potion Design, Perkins Eastman created an interactive auction bar that runs the length of the space. Overhead projectors concealed within a bulkhead are activated when a visitor lifts the earpiece on the bar. Images then appear on its surface, initiated by RFDI tags under the bench.

    Tenement Museum: Max Marcus Auction House display

    The auction space is furnished with period artifacts, while one area exposes an original partition that demonstrates evidence of fire damage. Modern interventions such as duct work, lighting, and piping are clearly visible to provide transparency to the building’s past and present.

    The Rear Yard

    The museum had hired the historical archaeologist Dr. Joan Geismar in the early 1990s to excavate the rear’s southwest corner. Her excavation revealed remnants of a brick privy dating back to the building’s construction in 1863. Along with a water pump, the privy was the only sanitation available to the building tenants for 40 years, when interior toilets and running water were installed around the turn of the 20th century.

    The rear yards of New York tenements were also important spaces for tenant privacy and socializing. Based on the excavation, research into historic photos from that era, and a 1902 “I card” inspection report, we designed a courtyard with original excavated bluestone pavers, and located reconstructed privies, a water pump, and a washing line in spaces indicated by the old photos.  An ADA lift was also incorporated within the yard’s fencing to increase accessibility to the museum’s lower levels.

    Tenement Museum: rear yard privy and water pump display

    Phase 2 Renovation of 103 Orchard Street

    The purchase of 103 Orchard Street was a game changer. It gave the museum a prominent location and the chance to create a “front door” to the whole experience.

    Tenement Museum: Exterior of Visitor's Center at 103 Orchard Street

    The building’s open ground floor now serves as a front porch to the Lower East Side, welcoming visitors to the museum and the historic neighborhood and providing a valuable community resource through its many educational workshops for school children and adults alike, in addition to its museum store.

    The building occupies the corner of Delancey and Orchard streets, but what’s there today is only the front half of what used to be three separate tenements that were built midblock in 1888. The widening of Delancey Street in 1903 (which demolished several tenements to the right) gave 103 Orchard new prominence on the corner. Then the buildings underwent a series of radical transformations, where their back halves were sliced off to make way for a bank, while the fronts were combined into a single apartment building with commercial space on the street level. A strip along the left side was further carved out to create a passageway.

    While the lower floors that had spanned the original three buildings were unoccupied when the museum purchased it, tenants were still living in its upper-floor apartments. The expanding visitor center and shop needed more space, and new classrooms were also in demand, so the team elected to do a phased renovation starting with the lower floors, while maintaining the upper floors as apartments until the remaining tenants could relocate. This schedule added an additional level of complexity to the design and construction. The phased approach meant that the design had to be organized so the first phase set the stage for the future phase. It also meant the work had to be safely separated from the apartments above.

    But first, considerable remediation was necessary to shore up the building. These tenements were poorly built in the first place; longevity was never the intent. The buildings had endured multiple alterations over the years, which needed to be carefully stripped back to begin to understand how to safely reinforce them.  We even found a secret room during our survey, and we reclaimed additional space in the basement by removing false walls that hid construction debris from previous alterations.

    The Orchard Street façade was peeling away from the building and had to be pinned back in several locations. The floors of the building were not securely attached to the cast-iron columns along Orchard Street, so we added a new structural floor slab to address this deficiency. The existing floor joists had bowed over the years, resulting in sloping floors, so we reinforced them with cross-laminated timber beams. The basement was excavated to increase its floor-to-ceiling height, and crumbling walls had to be rebuilt so the lower level could house a docent lounge, retail storage, mechanical rooms, and public bathrooms.

    The first floor contains the visitors’ center, which is now wrapped in a floor-to-ceiling glass façade that provides an open and welcoming view into the multifunctional space with an additional screening room and small gallery in back. The second floor houses classroom space and a demonstration kitchen.

    The existing cast-iron columns were left exposed throughout, an approach that revealed an original exterior shop sign painted on one of those columns.

    Tenement Museum: Interior of Visitors Center at 103 Orchard Street

    The transformed street level of 103 Orchard preserved the building’s original cast-iron columns, including one that at one point doubled as a storefront sign.

    The exterior work replaced the rotting, decorative-tin cornice with an exact fiberglass replica, which now forms a transition between the new glass façade at street level and the upper stories. New signage includes a large painted sign on the Delancey Street façade–a reference to the many advertising signs that used to be painted on the sides of buildings in the neighborhood.

    We also created a new entrance from that old passageway to the left of the building to serve the upper floors and act as an exit. A laser-cut steel gate, seen below, replicates an original wallpaper pattern found at 97 Orchard Street.  And while Perkins Eastman was working on this project, its Frank studio for experiential graphic design handled the signage and graphics. Read more about that related work here.

    Tenement Museum 6

    Phase 3: Renovation of the upper levels of 103 Orchard Street

    Within a few years, the museum had secured the finances and was ready to renovate the remaining upper floors of the building. The principal goal was to showcase immigration stories post-1939, the point at which 97 Orchard Street ceased to have tenants. And during our site investigations there, we found a mezuzah, crucifix and a small makeshift Buddhist shrine all in a single apartment, evidence of the rich and varied backgrounds of the people who lived in that space across the decades. Through extensive research, historians and curators had also found records of three families who had lived in the building at different times: the Epsteins, a Jewish family who survived the Holocaust; the Saez-Velez family from Puerto Rico who lived there in the 1950s and ’60s; and the Wong family from China who had an apartment there in the 1970s and ’80s. The resulting “Under One Roof” exhibit on the third floor features rooms dedicated to each family.

    “Under One Roof” offers a snapshot of different decades in the life of 103 Orchard, when separate immigrant families lived there.

    Tenement Museum 7

    Tenement Museum 8 Tenement Museum 9

    Small garment workshops often existed in apartments throughout the Lower East Side, offering ready employment in the neighborhood. In honor of their ubiquitous presence, 103 Orchard also displays a recreated and interactive workroom.

    Tenement Museum: Garment maker's workroom

    The fourth- and fifth-floor renovations, furthermore, provided new administration and support spaces.

    The renovation of the upper floors took place while the museum remained open on the lower levels, adding complexity to the project logistics. Serious remedial structural work was necessary as we extended the elevators, stairs, and mechanical/electric/plumbing systems up through the building, as years of neglect had taken their toll. The structural upgrades on the third and fourth floors had to be carefully inserted around the new exhibit and support spaces to avoid disrupting the historic finishes.

    The fourth and fifth floors have been fully modernized and house much-needed space for the museum’s administrative and teaching/research needs. While tenements were infamous for lack of light, Perkins Eastman maximized daylight wherever possible. The design team created an open workspace that allows light to filter deep into the heart of the building, and where individual offices were required, the team used floor-to-ceiling glass partitions to maintain a transparent atmosphere. A new skylight in the fifth-floor conference room and library also filters sunshine down to the fourth floor via a new internal stair that connects the two administrative floors.

    Tenement Museum: Classroom in renovated section of 103 Orchard Street

    A general classroom on the third floor blends existing and new finishes.


    Tenement Museum: Conference room at 103 Orchard Street

    This “found space” for a conference room and library was created by designing the top two floors as a suite.

    To create a continuous space in the offices, the floors bridged airshafts that once separated the original three tenement buildings, turning exterior walls into interior partitions. The historic windows and brick facades were left as a feature within the space. Remnants of wood paneling and shutters from the old apartment interiors also remain a feature in the design.

    Tenement Museum 11 Tenement Museum 12
    Phase 4: 91 Orchard Street

    We redesigned 91 Orchard during this last phase of the master plan, whose main level includes meeting space and touch-down areas for the docents who lead the tours, in addition to a lounge and kitchen. We devoted the second floor to museum archives. The basement currently houses a custodians’ workshop and some general storage, but it will eventually be reconfigured to house more archives. Tenants continue to live in apartments above the second floor.

    The refreshed floors at 91 Orchard opened in 2023, just shy of the 20 years outlined in the master plan. Today, the museum complex receives over 250,000 visitors a year from over 55 nations, a testament to the importance of its mission, message, and impact. And to further expand its representation of the neighborhood, an additional exhibit at 97 Orchard opened in 2023, illustrating the black experience at the turn of the century based on records of a family that lived nearby.

    The Tenement Museum relies on government funding, institutional grants, and individual donations as the complex continues to evolve. Beyond design services, Perkins Eastman is proud to serve as a trusted partner to the museum and its mission. The firm has helped them raise money to achieve the goals outlined in the master plan by supplying design documentation and narrative descriptions for each of its phases to help grant organizations and donors envision how their funds would be put to work.