Perkins Eastman’s Tenement Museum Renovation Transcends Adaptive Reuse

By bringing visitors into a recreated home, the Tenement Museum is able to tell the unique stories of American immigrants.

Morgan Reuther Morgan Reuther

Earlier this year, AIA New York — the oldest and largest cohort of the 90,000-member-strong organization — announced its annual Design Awards program recognizing outstanding design by AIA New York members, New York City-based architects and projects within New York City.

Claiming one of ten prestigious Merit Awards for Architecture was the Tenement Museum Renovation by Perkins Eastman.

Located in the heart of NYC’s Lower East Side, the project’s completion marks the culmination of a decade-long strategic master plan to increase the Museum’s prominence within the city and realizes its mission of becoming a unique community and civic resource.

Photo by Sarah Mechling, courtesy Perkins Eastman

Perkins Eastman collaborated alongside museum leadership, curators and exhibition designers, all of whom worked tirelessly to preserve as much of the extant building fabric and interior architectural backdrop as possible, while still allowing the building to serve as a fully functional museum space. Perkins Eastman’s Principal-in-Charge Nick Leahy described the undertaking as a unique restoration project, as “even specks of dust” held historical significance.

As a result, common structural features such as air shafts — the “lungs” of the tenements, which back then echoed with Yiddish, German, Spanish, Italian, Irish and English voices throughout the tenements — take on new roles. They serve as connections between the three tenements stitched together and are left raw and unfinished. Similarly, original stairwells were preserved and relocated — to accommodate the program spread across the three buildings — and showcase uneven, crumbling layers of plaster, mortar, brick, and paint; a time capsule revealed.

Photos by Elliott Kaufman, courtesy Perkins Eastman

Leahy uses the term “forensic architecture” to describe how the ordinariness of the replicated/restored settings accurately communicates the daily experiences of the families.

The term eloquently relates the way the project’s methodology transcends traditional notions of adaptive reuse — asserting the design team’s role to reveal, not repurpose — and allowing the building itself to tell the story and commemorate the history of urban, working-class immigrants.

One of the most exciting components of the renovation project is the creation of a new exhibit, “Under One Roof,” which occupies the third floor of 103 Orchard Street. It recreates spaces from the apartments of three families — the Epsteins from the 1950s, the Saezes from the 1960s, and the Wongs from the 1970s — who called 103 Orchard Street home. Through the stories of these three families, this exhibit offers a glimpse of the cultures that defined the neighborhood then and contribute to its place in history today.

“By bringing visitors into people’s recreated home, the Tenement Museum is able to tell the unique stories of American immigrants, migrants and refugees in a deeply personal and intimate way,” said Jas Chana, Media & Communications Manager at the Tenement Museum. “With the help of Perkins Eastman, we’ve been able to ensure that countless people have been able to understand and learn about the contributions of immigrants, past and present, to this country in a truly immersive manner.”

Photo by Sarah Mechling, courtesy Perkins Eastman

Photo by Sarah Mechling, courtesy Perkins Eastman

Photo by Paul Rivera, courtesy Perkins Eastman

Upon completion of the master plan, Perkins Eastman executed all phases of the plan, which includes (most recent listed first):

    • 103 Orchard Street, Upper Floors: Showcasing “Under One Roof,” a new exhibit about immigration post-1935 as well as creating much-needed administration offices for the Museum
    • Shop Life Exhibit: An exhibit in the basement of 97 Orchard Street focusing on the commercial life of the tenements
    • Rear Yard Exhibit: Highlights the importance of small outside spaces like the rear yard to the tenement experience
    • 103 Orchard Street, Lower Floors: Renovation of the lower floors into the new visitor and education center for the museum
    • 97 Orchard Street: Expansion of the exhibit space by stabilizing the fourth and fifth floors to open to the public
    • Moore Apartment: Restoration of a tenement that tell the story of an Irish immigrant family living at the tenement in 1869

“The Lower East Side Tenement Museum is a completely unique resource that has become one of the most popular cultural destinations in New York City,” explained Nick Leahy AIA, LEED AP, Principal-in-Charge at Perkins Eastman. “We’ve been privileged to work with the Museum for more than the past ten years, helping it become an indispensable source of knowledge, pride, and inspiration about the immigrant — which is to say, our — experience. Together with the Museum, we look forward to continuing to help bring history to life, using the existing architecture to help tell the stories common to all of us.”

Photo by Paul Rivera, courtesy Perkins Eastman

This latest recognition follows a host of other industry awards and commendations for the project:

  • Architizer A+Awards, Finalist, Architecture + Preservation (2018)
  • The New York Landmarks Conservancy, Lucy G. Moses Preservation Awards (2019)
  • 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)
  • 2019 AIA New York Design Awards, Merit Award (2019)

If you’re in New York City and are interested in visiting the Tenement Museum, head this way for details.

Top image: Photo by Sarah Mechling, courtesy Perkins Eastman

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