See NYC: A peek inside a real tenement, circa 1860

I’m fresh off a trip to New York City, and Monday’s post was all about the typical tourist-y things we did in our three-day blitz. But today and Friday, I’m highlighting a couple lesser-known things we did that made our trip special.

First up was the Tenement Museum. My sister-in-law knows about my love for old homes, so she recommended the museum, and it was a hit. Here’s the scoop: This apartment complex was built in 1860 because multi-family housing was in major demand (hello, immigrants!) and operated as such until 1930, when housing laws changed and landlords were required to make properties more fire safe and resistant. This came with a huge price tag, and since there was less demand for tenement housing during the ’30s, this particular landlord evicted his renters and boarded up the building, all except the main floor, which continued to be used as a storefront.

Fast forward to the late ’80s, when the tenement was rediscovered. As our tour guide said, it was basically a time capsule at this point, not having been touched since 1935.

Can you imagine the rush of such a find?! I would cry for days.

A shot of the floor near the threshold (before I was told to put the camera away).

The worst, WORST part of the tour was that no photography was allowed. Such a disappointment! So I’ll just paint a quick picture for you: We toured two apartments, one as it looked in the 1860s and one inhabited until the building was sealed in 1935. Imagine peeling plaster ceilings, burlap walls, and wallpaper (just skinny borders alongside trim). In the latter apartment, one three-light chandelier hung in the living room, and the rest of the rooms were lit by a single bulb.

These apartments were tiny—about 300 square feet. It was common for families with several children to live here, which meant kids camping out in the living room since Mom and Dad (or just Mom if Dad had skipped town) were in the bedroom.

The interior is in pretty serious disrepair, and I’m guessing it looks worse now than it did when boarded up—decades of neglect and extreme temperature swings in an unconditioned space can’t be good for any property. But it was a true peek into the past worth seeing.

Same neighborhood, different street

The other frustrating thing about the museum is that it can only be seen as part of a tour. So visitors don’t get to walk from level to level and room to room; instead, you choose what fraction of the building you want to see, and a tour guide tells you about it. We chose the tour called “Hard Times.”

If you go and you’re hungry, there’s an inexpensive little pizza place called Williamsburg Pizza just around the corner (check out that plaster ceiling!), and across the street from that is a beautiful Jewish synagogue. We were lucky to be there just before their Sabbath service began, and I loved seeing the families and couples walking inside. There are so many good people in the world, aren’t there?

In fact, if there’s one takeaway from our trip, it’s that things aren’t as bad as they seem. We saw a million people and not one person being a punk. We saw hard-working families getting their kids off to school before running to catch the subway. We saw lots of friendly people happy to help if they could (and pretty patient when I fell on them in the subway—true story). It reminded me that most people are good and just want a happy life. That’s all.

I spent three solid days with my husband and one of my dearest friends—who could ask for more? On Friday, I’ll share one more New York highlight not to be missed. •

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