Tenement Museum Collections

Beat the Heat at the Tenement Museum!


When 97 Orchard Street was built in 1863 its first residents had few options as temperatures rose during the hot summer months. Former resident Archie Friedberg recalled, “I used to get such headaches. My mother used to put cold compresses on… me and my brother on our forehead to cool us down…we had no fire escapes to sleep on…we lived on a top floor and the sun baked on the roof and the apartment was like an oven.” 

Over the years, Tenement Museum staff have worked overtime to find our own creative ways of dealing with the heat and humidity. As an institution that both serves the public and takes pride in our preservation of the building’s historic fabric, we have wrestled with how best to manage climate control and improve visitor comfort on hot summer days.

Photo: Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper, 1882

Like many of the air shafts and interior windows found in old NYC tenements, ours were added in 1905 following new housing laws created to promote air flow through the buildings to slow the spread of disease. Unfortunately, air shafts did not work as intended, and ours provided little relief for residents and visitors to 97 Orchard on hot summer days. 

Now, for the first time, the air shaft in 97 Orchard is serving its original purpose in keeping our visitors and staff cool.

In typical homes or office buildings, air conditioning gets delivered through ductwork installed in the walls and ceilings. An invasive installation like that would be impossible in 97 Orchard, so our system introduces passively circulated, tempered air into the exhibit spaces throughout the interior windows from ducts added to the airshaft. Along with introducing cooler air, the circulation helps us preserve our tenement by reducing the short- and long-term impacts of humidity on the more fragile elements of the building, such as the historic wallpaper and furnishing.

It was a long road to find a solution. For over 15 years, we worked with historic house climate control expert Michael Henry of Watson & Henry Associates to study how the interior environment of 97 Orchard Street behaves during the summer months. Ultimately we decided that full environmental controls and mechanical cooling systems like air conditioning would feel inauthentic and diminish the immersive experience. 

So we spoke with experts in the field, from engineers to preservations, in search of a solution that would preserve historic fabric and retain the palpable feel of a 19th century tenement built without mechanical cooling. Finally in 2018 engineer Tim Tangel, in consultation with architects at Li-Saltzman Architect LLC., developed a design that would use the building’s historic airshaft to introduce an innovative climate control system to 97 Orchard for the first time. 

Photo: The new HVAC system being installed on the roof of 97 Orchard Street, May 20, 2023.

We are already seeing a huge impact as we head into warmer days on the exhibit spaces with this new system, and we can’t wait to welcome visitors this summer into our cooled spaces for the first time! Book your Tenement Museum tour today!

Want to see the new HVAC system get installed on our roof? Check out this video!

The new HVAC system being installed on the roof of 97 Orchard Street, May 20, 2023.

Our new HVAC system is a result of our recent construction project at 97 Orchard Street. Thanks to our visitors and supporters, this key climate control solution won’t only improve visitor comfort during these hot summer months, but also help preserve our National Historic Landmark for generations to come.

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