Tenement Museum: Telling the many stories of a 5-story building

the Tenement Museum, courtesy of ahistoryofnewyork.com

97 Orchard Street may not have been a model tenement, but its current incarnation as the Tenement Museum serves as a model of responding to challenges in interpretation. First, it has devised a clever solution to the question of encouraging repeat visitors to a historic site, and simultaneously broadening the diversity of that audience. The museum offers eight different guided tours that appeal to a variety of interests, including five tours that explore the building’s physical stories through the lens of historic residents’ life stories, and three walking tours of the neighborhood that set the tenement itself into wider contexts. Using the floors of 97 Orchard as microcosms of the building’s history, and by extension the history of the tenement form in New York City, the five building tours, one hour each, rely largely on visitors’ imagination and sense of empathy to animate the rooms. In one case that is specifically advertised for families, the “Confino Family Living History Program,” a costumed interpreter assists with this animation, demonstrating the museum’s plan of appealing to different audiences through strategic interpretative methods.

As an indecisive person, I was a bit overwhelmed upon first visiting the museum’s website. Which of the tour options would provide me with the best sense of the tenement’s history? After poking around reviews and travel forums to gauge the tours’ popularity, I chose “Getting By.” This tour, which took place on the second floor of the building, visited the restored apartments of the German-Jewish Gumpertz family in the 1870s and the Italian-Catholic Baldizzi family in the 1930s. While I was initially disappointed that my experience of the building would be limited to one level, and a bit skeptical that an hour-long tour could sustain interest while restricted to two small apartments, I was ultimately impressed with the scope of the experience and saw the benefits of offering multiple tours.

The reason that one floor was sufficient material for an hour was that the interpreter used each apartment as the setting for telling the story of a family who actually lived there, and then generating a discussion of the family’s conditions in relation to a modern context. She interwove the historical accounts with questions designed to help the audience observe certain characteristics of the apartments and to connect with the families, not only by occupying the space they once inhabited but also by considering the emotions and thought processes that might have accompanied certain events in the history. These questions ranged from “What does the word ‘tenement’ make you think of?” to “What would you do if you were Natalie Gumpertz and your husband disappeared?,” from “How does the 1930s apartment look different from the 1870s apartment?” to “How did your own ancestors get by in the Depression?”

Throughout the tour, the interpreter was clear about what facts the museum did and did not know, even passing around the documents that were the basis for the museum’s research. She encouraged visitors to fill in the gaps between these facts with their own conjectures and experiences, as opposed to fabricating a narrative undifferentiated from fact. It was unclear whether the furnishings and objects in the apartments were original artifacts (although the guide later clarified that many were), and these objects were often not identified or interpreted. The goal of the tour was not to experience individual elements of the apartments, which again were quite small, but to experience each space as a whole. The few objects with which visitors interacted—turning the light switch to experience the hallway in historically-accurate darkness, passing around a sad iron to feel its weight—were used to produce the effect of simulation and help visitors to better relate, even at a corporeal level, to the families whose stories they were hearing.

the Baldizzi kitchen, courtesy of the Tenement Museum

This sense of connection reached a climax when the interpreter paused before leaving the Baldizzi apartment to play for us a bit of oral history from the Baldizzi daughter Josephine, now an older woman. As we stood in the kitchen, Josephine described concrete memories of how her family used that space, while the interpreter subtly directed our attention to the objects to which Josephine was referring—Linit Starch, a gas heater, a set of Chinese checkers. Through these multiple means of interaction, interweaving documented facts, visitor-driven speculation, object-based simulation, oral history, and personal reflection, the Tenement Museum has addressed the challenges of engaging visitors, appealing to universal themes and to both emotions and intellects, and guiding visitors to discover their own sense of the significance of this historic place. In the end, the visitors from Texas, California, Australia, and the native New Yorkers on the tour with me could all relate to the families who had lived in the tenement. The comments that I heard afterward multiple times were “great research” and “great story;” I think that both were key to the Tenement Museum’s interpretation plan.

Joel Sternfeld on photographing the High Line

The High Line, an elevated rail line reincarnated as a park, is a new mecca for historic preservation in New York City, and one of my favorite places on the planet. Climbing up the stairs in the rain felt tonight, as it does every time I visit the park, like ascending to a secret dimension threaded through the top of the city, both suspended in time and crystallizing time’s passage. Joel Sternfeld created a similar effect through his photography of the park before its transformation, an assignment the Friends of the High Line gave him in 2000. Tonight he spoke about the images he captured of the wildflowers and weeds that had claimed the rails after the last train passed through in 1980 (notoriously lugging frozen turkeys). These photos helped to seed the movement that rescued the High Line from demolition.

These days, the High Line is rarely empty, but Sternfeld had the place to himself as he pursued the perfect images to tell the High Line’s story. “It was my own private park for one year,” he said, because “the money shot takes time.” He photographed on days when the sky was “neutral, so that if there were any beauty in the picture, it couldn’t be attributed to my ability as a photographer, or to the day: it was emanating from the High Line itself.” He recalled one day in particular when it seemed to be his personal utopia: “There was no place else on earth that I would rather be…it was exquisite.”

After the High Line’s metamorphosis, Sternfeld felt disoriented in the place he had come to know so intimately; he compared the impression to losing a limb: “Every now and then, I feel a little bit of phantom pain for the old High Line.” In a sense, though, this is a sweet sort of pain that any visitor to the High Line can experience to a degree; the ghost of the High Line’s past life remains in the park by invitation. Sternfeld came to see the power of the rail line’s new form, especially as the product of a passionate group of people overcoming opposition, as well as for its link to his interest in environmental conservation. “The great value of the High Line now is as a symbol,” he said. “This is hope symbolized.” He stressed the importance of completing the park; Section 2 opened in June, but Section 3’s development is pending. “I don’t know which is harder: to solve global warming or to get something done in New York City,” he said, “but I hope that we’ll all join in this fight to truly save the High Line.”

Next week, my architectural photography class is making an excursion to the park. It will probably be a lifetime before I get anything approaching a “money shot,” but I think I will benefit from remembering Sternfeld’s approach: translating the insistent history of the place, but first quietly letting the High Line speak for itself.

9/11 at a Decade: built memories and a shattered plant

As the September 11 attacks were unfolding, I was in Houston and could not have imagined that I would find myself living in NYC on the tenth anniversary, much less studying historic preservation of buildings. To be honest, I didn’t even know at first that the World Trade Center buildings were located in NYC. When the substitute teacher in my English class received word that “someone had flown into the World Trade Center,” my immediate image was a parachutist in Chicago, all broken silk and glass, and I wondered why this strange news merited interrupting first period. Even as the true scope of what had happened began to reveal itself—first through whispered exchanges on the stairwell between classes, then when a teacher (world history, as I recall) finally succumbed to turning on the television—I was not thinking of a tenth anniversary. I was only four years into my own second decade, after all. Still, I had an awareness that I was witnessing an event that would not be forgotten—that even as we all were living it, was staking its claim of significance in the soon-to-be past. This idea persisted as I sat in my pink rocking chair watching the news with my parents and sister in our living room, after school and into the night, and as I wrote in one of my half-empty attempts at a diary an entry that consisted of only the date, which seemed sufficient. It was a sense that I had never before experienced, and have only since approached on rare occasions. Yesterday was one of them.

Yesterday morning, as I sat in the windowsill of my NYC apartment, the city clamor had a changed vibration, the cathedral bells ringing new times—8:46, 9:03—and the sirens layered with distant bagpipes and the chanting of names from my computer’s live feed of the ceremony downtown. Because my loved ones had asked that I avoid public gatherings, I planned to respect both their concerns for my safety and the gravity of the date by staying at home and willing myself back to Houston, trying to revive and relive my memories of September 11, 2001. I found myself distracted by the fragmentation of the story, the images bound by a shapeless space. The parachutist, the stairwell, the pink chair. The towers, the fires, the ash. Perhaps I had not done enough to preserve the day; I’d had the privilege of being alive for it, yet I had let it so much of it die. I shifted in the sill and knocked my jade plant to the ground, and only then did I begin to cry. Dirt and pebbles spilled across the carpet; juicy round leaves cracked, and a branch split from the stem. I gathered the green debris, set it back in the window, and stared at it until I could no longer bear to. Down the street, as I reached the florist’s block, I wove through dozens of firefighters drinking beers on the corner outside of a pub; the FDNY had held their official ceremony at the Firemen’s Memorial a few blocks away. I knew how absurd I must have looked, clutching a broken plant to my chest, given what was surely on their minds. In the flower shop, the owner declared my jade an emergency and called over one of her plant caretakers. He pulled out the plant, dangling strings of dirt, and replaced it in a refilled pot between green support sticks, then dipped my stem shard in white powder and planted it to grow roots of its own. When I returned my reconstructed little succulent once again to the window, it somehow seemed more whole, set and spread across the soil, than it had before the collapse.

I hadn’t intended to mark the day this way and worried, at first, that I would regret having been in NYC for the tenth anniversary and allowing the emotional climax to be crying over chlorophyll. But in hindsight, I don’t think that I will. I have realized that, while September 11 led to a lot of confusion, what it brought me closer to understanding was the nature of history. It seems to me that we are not the creators of history; history creates itself, and the best that any one of us can do is to cultivate our disparate experiences of it such that whatever memories we manage to keep help it to grow in the direction of light. Historic preservation is memory reconstruction, digging, rooting, salvaging pieces to create a new whole that in its fragmentation honors the truth. On the tenth anniversary of the tenth anniversary, I think this is what I will remember: a windowsill, a street corner, and a pieced-together plant. And somehow, that seems enough.

Happy Jacobs Day: Fifty years of Death and Life

Dick Loek/Toronto Star

I am back from my sojourn in Toronto to begin a second year of classes in New York City. In 1968, Jane Jacobs, one of the great matriarchs of historic preservation, traveled in the opposite direction (though probably not on a Greyhound bus), moving her family from NYC’s Greenwich Village to Toronto’s Annex out of objection to the Vietnam War. Built on the revolutionary urban development ideas she developed in NYC, her work in Toronto continued to break ground for the rest of her life. She became a Canadian citizen, was inducted into the Order of Canada, and remained in the same house on Albany Avenue until her death in 2006. On today’s date twenty years ago, in honor of the thirtieth anniversary of the publication of Jane’s pivotal book The Death and Life of Great American Cities, the city of Toronto declared “Jacobs Day.”

It seems fitting, then, to acknowledge her legacy there. We are awfully proud of her here in NYC, especially in my field, and perhaps forget that we share that pride with another city, one of which she herself was proud: in 1969, she said, “As a relatively recent transplant from New York, I am frequently asked whether I find Toronto sufficiently exciting. I find it almost too exciting. The suspense is scary. Here is the most hopeful and healthy city in North America, still unmangled, still with options.” (See Barry Wellman’s “Jane Jacobs, the Torontonian”) Of course, her impact on modern urban planning reaches beyond these two cities; wherever we fight for the human vitality of our neighborhoods, every day can be Jacobs Day!

A miniscule bright side of natural disaster

It’s beginning to feel like an East Coast apocalypse… To be clear, there isn’t a lot of obvious brightness to serious natural disasters. And okay, this week’s earthquake didn’t quite qualify in that category (although the hurricane currently heading towards my NYC apartment might be a different story). But as someone who was in DC at the time of the tremble, I feel that I have the authority to say it was pretty scary…at least for a few seconds there.

For hours afterward, hypnotized by the short yet unceasing CNN news cycle, I found a bit of bittersweet satisfaction in the fact that all of the repeated stories centered on buildings. The news was not good: cracked limestone in the Washington Monument, statues and pinnacles pitched from the National Cathedral, DC school buildings closed for inspection, at least three structures — including a historic church — facing condemnation in the lovely town of Culpeper. I try to force myself to seek positive in the negative, though, and in this case, I appreciated the recognition that buildings can be casualties that deeply affect communities. From the shaking walls of the earthquake to the hunkering down for the hurricane, my fellow East Coasters have spent the week describing our experience in terms of our buildings. Such situations renew awareness of our interconnectedness with and reliance on the built environment, and that, to me, is a miniscule bright side.

Meanwhile, we can only hope that this weekend’s damage won’t be as drastic as projected. Be safe, New York friends and buildings, and everyone else in Irene’s path…I’m grateful to be sitting in Toronto and sending sunny thoughts your way.

Cracks in the Washington Monument, Charles Dharapak/AP

A statue toppled at the Washington National Cathedral, Courtesy of the National Cathedral, The Washington Post

Dear Signage: the brass tacks of bronze plaques

Recently, my mom and aunt introduced me to a remarkable website called Dear Photograph. You may have already seen this microblog, which has gone viral in the less than three months since it was started by Taylor Jones, a 21-year-old from Kitchener, Ontario. Featuring a daily selection from viewers’ submissions, it is a collection based on the premise of revisiting the site of an old photograph and shooting it again, with the picture held up against its now-modern setting. The product—a past moment superimposed on the present—expands the physical limits of the original photo and the temporal limits of experiencing the place.

This concept reminded me of a preservation project I had heard about, one of the winning entries of a 2003 competition called Marking Places that Matter. According to NYC’s Place Matters, the offshoot of City Lore and the Municipal Art Society that sponsored the competition, “The challenge was to create simple, relatively low-cost strategies that would go beyond the traditional bronze plaque for marking and describing places around the city.” In David Provan’s “Historic Overlay” proposal, one of eight winners, he designed viewing stations for significant places where visitors could see an old photograph of a site alongside an empty frame, replicating the borders of the photo to outline their present view. In Provan’s words, “By using archival photographs ‘overlaid’ upon a site, a viewer would have the opportunity to compare and contrast their present moment and location with those of a distant yesterday.”

I will admit to a teary first reaction to Dear Photograph, and although I am known to be a bit of a sap, it seems to have resonated with many people in this way. The site’s popularity suggests that Provan’s comparable signage premise holds a lot of promise, and it supports several generalizations: people love comparisons, they especially love juxtaposition (not just we English majors who obsess over it in papers), and ultimately, they appreciate connection. To me, connections—of people to history via places, and to places via awareness of the past—are the brass tacks of signage. The power of Dear Photograph and “Historic Overlay” lies in their allowing us, in the spirit of the Tralfamadorians, to view the past and present of a place at once.

“When the [stained-glass ceiling] hits your eye…”

I wouldn’t exactly recommend Times Square as a hotbed of preservation architecture. (To be honest, beyond for the occasional caffeinating sojourn, I wouldn’t recommend it at all…jumbo crowds and jumbo trons don’t do a lot for me.) So last night, seeking pizza with my visiting family, I was not expecting the entryway (a skylit bar that apparently was once an alley) of John’s Pizzeria at West 44th and 8th Ave. to open up into the high, stained-glass ceiling of a late 19th-century, formerly abandoned church. This conversion (of the architectural, not religious, variety) by Andrew Tesoro Architects winds diners around a two-tiered balcony, overlooking a grand space that faces a cityscape mural. The side-by-side glows of brick ovens and half-round stained-glass windows are an unusual sight, and one that immerses hundreds of people in the potential of adaptive reuse as they eat beneath slices of lacy light.
Oh, and the pizza is delicious, too…roasted red peppers, sun-dried tomatoes, smoky thin crust…but that ceiling!

Tesserae and talking walls

I have a number of favorite places in the Washington, DC, area— the first, naturally, being my family’s home. Not far down on the list is the monumental National Building Museum, where this past weekend I went to see Walls Speak: The Narrative Art of Hildreth Meière. (The exhibit is up through January 2, 2012; see it for yourself!) Meière was a noted figure in the Art Deco movement who collaborated with architects and craftsmen to create painted murals, wool tapestries, marble floors, and especially glass and marble mosaics. From her initial pencil sketches, full-size studies (“cartoons”), and models that were featured in the exhibit arise, as advertised, several narratives: first, that of Meière’s own life. After studying at an Academy of the Sacred Heart (like me!) in New York, and later in San Francisco, Chicago, and Florence, she worked as a mapmaker and architectural drafts-woman for the navy during World War I. She then made a career of integrating art into built spaces and was the first woman elected to the New York City Arts Commission, as well as the first to receive the Fine Arts Medal from the American Institute of Architects. She served on the boards of various organizations, including the Municipal Art Society, as Vice President of the Architectural League of New York, and as President of the National Society of Mural Painters.

Nebraska State Capitol Ceiling, by Dave Parker, Wikimedia Commons

Acclaimed for the almost exclusively narrative nature of her work, Meière combined material innovation with an affinity (one I would like to call “writerly”) for portraying symbol and story. Her first architectural commission, for the National Academy of Sciences in 1924, was to interpret scientific concepts as imagery, painted over Guastavino’s Akoustolith tile to resemble glazed ceramic. Soon afterward, she completed the work that would endure as her personal favorite: scenes inspired by Hartley Burr Alexander’s iconography, ceramic tile surrounded by Akoustolith in the Nebraska State Capitol. She went on to study and illustrate a wide range of subject matter, from a dome’s worth of apostles and six-winged seraphim, drawn with tiny glass tesserae in the Cathedral Basilica of St. Louis, to her painted mural for Chicago’s Century of Progress Exposition, with three vignettes celebrating women’s progress from 1833 to 1933. Perhaps most well-known are her iconic roundels on the facade of Radio City Music Hall, which used a new process for exterior mixed metals to depict drama, dance, and song. With paint, metal, and bits of glass, Meière made storytellers of ceilings and walls.

Ultimately, “Walls Speak” refers to, and itself is part of, an overarching preservation narrative, one that pieces together and perpetuates Meière’s life story and the stories contained in her work. The museum walls speak, too—of the need for such history to be valued and maintained. For her last commission, she proposed a series of vignettes for wall niches in the National Cathedral; rejected in favor of a more abstract design, they survive through her saved drawings. Her final commercial commission in 1960, a year before her death, told the legend of Hercules through marble mosaic at Prudential Plaza. The work, irreparably harmed during a 1996 remodeling, now endures through photographs and cartoons. Likewise, Meière’s sculpture on the exterior of the RKO Theater, which showed “talkies” as part of Rockefeller Center, had been destroyed with the building in 1954; her drawings, however, preserve its memory. The exhibit describes her large-scale works for the New York World’s Fair, which now exist only as models: “At the close of the 1939 Fair, all of the art work was destroyed. This did not disturb Meière, who believed that the fun was in creating the objects, whether or not they endured.” (Her attitude sounds rather similar to that of a certain gum-wad painter we know, doesn’t it?) With all due respect to Meière’s beliefs, I will admit to being disturbed, but simultaneously relieved that the narrative art of Hildreth Meière will persist, with some assistance from the narrative art of preservation.