Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Welcome to My Manhattan Home

Living History in New York City by Maggie Hames
When you think of New York City, you often think of the high-tech, modern crossroads that is Times Square. But there’s another Manhattan, one steeped in history. I suggest an eye-opening trip into the past: visit a pair of residence-museums that will give you and your child a vivid picture of New York City’s extremes in the later 19th and early 20th centuries. Combine a visit to The Tenement Museum on the lower east side with a visit to The Frick Collection on the upper east side and you will experience a peek into the private, intimate living spaces of New Yorkers who experienced vastly different versions of the same city.

The Tenement Museum, located at 97 Orchard Street, tells the stories of the residents who lived there. Lucas Glockner built the 20-unit building in 1863 and it was home to more than 7,000 people before it was condemned as a residence in 1935. The Museum has done an amazing job researching the histories of a selection of families and re-creating their living spaces. Guides lead small groups of visitors into the halls and apartments of these families and tell their stories in detail. The tours are designed for visitors at least five years old, with some tours reserved for visitors older than eight; and others for visitors twelve and older. The Spartan conditions in the apartments will give you pause, as you try to envision life in a walk-up apartment without running water, privies (and squatters) in the yard, and a coal stove running 24 hours a day, all year long. You’ll learn of the ordinances that compelled landlords to install electricity and running water in the building, as well as a flush toilet for every two apartments. Even more astounding are the success stories that emerged from this historic dwelling.

Visitors must be ten or older to visit The Frick Collection. The building was once the residence of Henry Clay Frick who was born in 1849 and made his fortune in coke, the essential fuel used in the smelting of iron ore. Frick was an astute collector of old master and 19th century art. In 1913 he built his splendid mansion as much a home for his collection as for his family. (It must be nice to have your own Vermeer, and Frick had three of them, all on display here.) The house itself is grand beyond imagining, with an excess of that most precious New York commodity: space.

To walk these halls is to venture back to a truly gilded age. It’s difficult to imagine that Fifth Avenue was once lined with mansions like this one, but the Frick residence makes that era come alive. And the Frick garden, where you’re free to wander, has a larger footprint than most buildings. The lifestyle that went with this space is every bit as “gone with the wind” as that of 97 Orchard Street. But these residence-museums allow the past to live again in our waking dreams.

Have you been to either of these museums? We'd love to hear about it.


  1. These museums are a testament to what New York looked like from the past. It's a different take on the common urban image.

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  2. That's my point exactly. Both of these New Yorks--the mansion and the flat without running water--are gone.