The Tenement Museum tells the story of American immigration through the personal accounts of immigrant families, framing immigration as an essential force in shaping the culture, economy, and society of the nation and NYC. Perkins Eastman has been working as a design partner to the Museum for more than ten years, helping it create an urban campus, increase its prominence within the city, and, particularly within the growth and cultural changes of Lower Manhattan, realize its mission of becoming a unique community and civic resource. It is now regarded as one of the top cultural destinations in the city.
The non-profit museum tells the story of immigration to the US through the extant building fabric of preserved tenement buildings in America’s iconic immigrant neighborhood. Now a (living, breathing) National Historic Site, the Museum reveals the stories of nearly 20,000 people who lived and worked in tenement buildings on Orchard Street in the late 19th century through the 1970s through:
• a forensic exploration of immigrant life as excavated in the now-restored apartment of an Irish family from the 1860s; • a basement-level exhibition examining tenement commercial life; • the renovation of the lower floors at 103 Orchard Street into the new visitor and education center for the museum; and • the stitching together of three separate but connected deteriorating tenement buildings to create an invisible architectural backdrop for the Museum’s new permanent exhibit on modern immigration.
This latest phase provides new exhibit areas and much-needed support spaces for Museum staff. “Under One Roof” is the Museum’s first to bring the American immigration story into the modern era, telling the stories of three families—Polish refugees who survived the Holocaust (Epstein family), Puerto Rican migrants (Saez family), and Chinese immigrants (Wong family)—who lived at 103 Orchard Street.
The design deliberately retains and showcases the existing buildings in the redesign so the architecture can also serve as a teaching tool that contributes to the Museum’s mission. This means common features like air shafts—the “lungs” of the tenements, which back then echoed with Yiddish, German, Spanish, Italian, and Irish voices—have become connections between the three tenements stitched together and are left raw and unfinished; and corridors and stairwells—relocated to accommodate the program spread across the three buildings—showcase uneven, crumbling layers of plaster, mortar, brick, and paint. This is a time capsule revealed—experiential architecture that mines the past to allow lessons for the future.
At the same time, sensitive interventions to the building fabric enhance the environment for museum-goers and staff. Judicious use of glass wherever possible; a skylight inserted in the conference room directing natural light down a new internal communicating stair which filters light throughout the administrative floors; crisp lighting; smart furniture systems; and unobtrusive “new” moments intermingle with elements and conditions literally from another era to produce an environment authentically NYC—old and new, at once, and where the behind-the-scenes is equally compelling.
The Tenement Museum corroborates the grand experiment that is America and undeniably NYC. Mining the past to impart lessons for the future, Perkins Eastman’s backstage approach to the design of the Tenement Museum brings its rich and vital history to life, enabling the existing architecture to tell its story also while examining the role that history and museums can play in our lives.