Volume 76, Number 43 | March 21 - 27, 2007

Villager photo by Jefferson Siegel

On Monday, at the Tenement Museum, Julia Devous, a great-granddaughter of Annie Moore, looked at items on a dressing table in a recreated historic apartment as, reflected in a mirror, her sister, Teresa Smith-Dehesus, and Patricia McCann Smith Dehesus, the wife of Annie Moore’s grandson, looked at the room.

Annie Moore and her spirit live again in Irish apt.

By Jefferson Siegel

No running water, no indoor bathrooms, no central heating, no electricity, unpaved streets, roving gangs.… The New York of the 1800s certainly didn’t win any awards for quality of life.

In the 19th century, Castle Garden at the Battery was landfall for the teeming masses of immigrants from overseas. As the structure was overwhelmed with a constant stream of arrivals, the federal government opened a new facility on nearby Ellis Island.

On Jan. 1, 1892, a 14-year-old girl from Ireland became the first immigrant to be processed on Ellis Island after her journey from County Cork. Like so many before her, Annie Moore came to America dreaming of a better life. Her family lived first in the notorious Five Points district in what is today part of Chinatown. They finally settled in a tenement apartment on the Lower East Side.

Today, just a few blocks from Delancey St.’s growing collection of banks, fast-food establishments and sneaker stores, there is a five-story time machine that can whisk visitors back to an era when coal and water were carried upstairs to apartments by hand. The Lower East Side Tenement Museum at 97 Orchard St. was created in 1988 to showcase the immigrant experience of those bygone days.

“I’m just awed and shocked a little bit,” Julia Devous, a great-granddaughter of Moore, said last Monday at the Tenement Museum. Devous and her sister, Teresa Smith-Dehesus, were on their first visit to the historic building to observe restoration work on their great-grandmother’s home and experience Moore’s living conditions.

“You think you’ve seen things in movies, but to think that this is the way they really lived, how they survived and were able to prosper and have children,” Devous marveled of her ancestor’s fortitude.

The lack of sanitary conditions caused Annie Moore to lose six of her 11 children to disease.

“They must have had a very strong survivor instinct,” Devous said of the survivors.

When the fourth-floor apartment, designated “An Irish Family in America,” is completed this fall, visitors will enter a 325-square-foot home virtually frozen in time from the late-1800s. Items common to the period will sit as if they were left in place: a laundry tub, medicine bottles and food packaging in the kitchen, a clay pipe on a desk and a trunk near the door. Slanted floors with squeaking wooden floorboards add to the atmosphere.

Although immigrants from Ireland had been arriving in Manhattan since the early 17th century, the museum says no one historic site has ever dealt with their travails.

An Irish family named Moore — unrelated to Annie Moore, however — had lived in the apartment. The re-creation attempts to familiarize visitors with the Irish immigrant experience by bringing the period to life.

“I’m amazed at the living conditions and how small things were,” Moore’s other great-granddaughter, Smith-Dehesus, said. “To think that these immigrants came over with just a few pieces of luggage — that’s their life in a box — it’s amazing.”

She was standing in a third-floor apartment, with a simple chandelier, tables and chairs, which was also under renovation to evoke the décor of another immigrant family that had lived there more than 100 years ago.

Tracing Moore’s lineage, like that of most other Irish immigrants, proved difficult. Most Irish arriving in America listed Cork, Ireland, as their home.

“Yes, all the boats left from Cork,” said Brian Andersson, commissioner of New York City’s Department of Records. “So they assume they were from Cork.” Curiously, Moore was one of the few Irish who had actually lived in Cork, on King St. “We found her marriage records and death records in the City Archives,” Andersson explained.

Moore worked as a domestic, likely caring for the upscale homes of the rich living further uptown. With no public transportation, just getting to and from work was difficult.

In the apartment at the Tenement Museum, the three tiny rooms served many purposes. The kitchen, where meals were prepared and served, doubled as a laundry room. The front room facing Orchard St, the only room with a window facing onto the street, was also a workspace for sewing and other chores.

“It’s very humbling, what our ancestors went through to help us get to where we are today,” Smith-Dehesus said.

“Most of the stories we tell of 97 Orchard St., their families are here a long time,” said Steve Long, vice president of collections and education of the Tenement Museum. “It’s not typical. Most families only lived in an apartment for a year or two and then they moved on.”

The Tenement Museum, a designated landmark building, housed almost 7,000 immigrants from more than 20 countries between 1863 and 1935. Other apartments in the building showcase the lives of Jewish families from the 1890s and 1900s, a German family from the 1870s and an Italian Catholic family from the 1930s.

“I’m saddened that we don’t have more of these reminiscing buildings,” said Patricia Dehesus, the wife of Annie Moore’s grandson, John J. Smith.

Museum tours begin at the Visitors Center and Museum Shop at 108 Orchard St. Tours are limited to 15 people. More information is available at www.tenement.org/.


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