Behind The Scenes, Resident Feature

When A Door is Not (Just) A Door

June 24, 2019


Today, this thickly painted four-paneled wooden door opens onto the recreated bedroom of Bella and Blima, the American born daughters of Kalman and Regina Epstein. Both Kalman and Regina were Holocaust Survivors who arrived to New York City as Refugees in 1947 through an Executive Order passed by Harry Truman two years earlier. This Executive Order granted amnesty to people who were displaced as a result of the Second World War. By the mid 1950’s, the Epstein family were residents of apartment #7 of 81 Delancey. Their family story lives-on and is celebrated as a part of the Under One Roof tour. Through close examination of the details of their daily life, the ordinary becomes extraordinary; and in the same fashion, this undistinguished cream-colored doorway becomes a portal opening onto the messy wonderful fullness of life on Lower East Side.

The tenement house at 81 Delancey has a long history dating back to 1888. What today appears to be a single corner building was, in 1888, three distinct Old-Law tenements situated in the middle of the block between Delancey and Broome Streets. These five-story tenement houses at 103, 105 and 107 Orchard each consisted of 20 separate three-room apartments built around a central airshaft. Between 1903 and 1905 the tenements north of 103-107 Orchard were raised to make way for transportation approaching the newly constructed Williamsburg Bridge- essentially doubling the width of Delancey Street.

Joseph Marcus, a Russian immigrant and successful garment manufacturer, purchased these three tenements in 1906.  Over the next decade he undertook a series of construction projects that not only took advantage of the corner location but radically transformed the interior apartments. By 1916 the tenements at 103, 105, and 107 were combined into one building with 81 Delancey as the new residential address. The interior apartments were radically altered to offer more living space and better amenities. Moreover, the rear half of the tenement was cut away to make room for a new building designed as the headquarters of Marcus’ newly founded Bank of the Unites States. When the dust finally settled, the tenement at 81 Delancey was in a category of its own. But Marcus’ vison as the landlord, didn’t come without a fight.

Exterior photo of 103 Orchard Street in 1940.

As early as 1913, his ambitious plans drew criticism from Tenement House Department inspectors. The 1st Deputy and Acting Commissioner, William P, Abbott Jr, argued:

“The three original buildings have been so changed in form, occupancy, and location…that I feel the Department would have to treat the alteration of such a gigantic nature requiring the filling in of the application form for a new law tenement.”

After several months of debate and reevaluation, these objections were overruled by the Commissioner, and Joseph Marcus’ grand designs for the Bank of the United States and the reconfiguration of 81 Delancey Street were brought to fruition.

By the 1950’s few were left to remember the widening of Delancey Street, the construction of the Bank of the United States, and the three individual Old-Law tenements that once stood in the middle of the block on Orchard Street. When the Epstein family moved into apartment #7, 81 Delancey was nothing more or less than home. They were unaware of the decisions and drama involved in combining three Old-Law tenements, or the people displaced when Delancey Street was widened. As a working-class family, they were likely more focused on finding a safe and affordable place to live. While traces of the buildings’ complex history surrounded them, these elements were too subtle to inspire much beyond a casual curiosity.

The thick accumulation of surface painting on the molding and walls was likely their most obvious clue that the building was old. An edge of door molding, dented or chipped from rearranging furniture or playing around, would reveal a rainbow of paint strata and no doubt inspire wonder about the former tenants. But to Stephanie M. Hoagland and Brandi Hayes, Architectural Conservators from Jablonski Building Conservation, these chips of paint are more akin to forensic evidence.

In 2015, Hoagland and Hayes extracted 117 samples of paint throughout apartment #7. Returning to their laboratory, they encased these samples in clear resin and examined each through powerful microscopes. Through their investigation they uncovered a total of 38 paint and finish layers. By counting the layers and cross-referencing the color sequence, Hoagland and Hayes were able to determine where each area fit in the chronology of the building’s history. The sample from the back of Bella and Blima’s bedroom door revealed that the door dated back to 1888. However, samples taken from the surrounding doorframe indicate that the doorway was cut through the wall in 1906 as a part of the first phase of Marcus’ renovation. Hoagland and Hayes concluded that the 1888 door itself was scavenged from another entrance and hung on the new doorframe in 1906. All of this was unknown to Bella and Blima Epstein, though perhaps they wondered about the people who lived in their apartment before them.

Their bedroom doorframe contained a clue that was both familiar and perhaps comforting to the Epstein daughters. Angling into the bedroom on the right side of the doorframe and buried under layers of paint are two mezuzot- indicating that earlier residents we also Jewish. One would assume that these tenants were intimately familiar with the guidelines for installing their mezuzot, however, the physical evidence challenges that assumption. Guidelines for mezuzot place the responsibility of removal on the tenant when they leave the residence, unless they know the next occupants are also Jewish. Moreover, the guidelines also have prohibitions against there being more than one mezuzah on a doorframe. The presence of two mezuzot indicates that one of these tenants was breaking the rules. The simplest conclusion we can draw from the evidence, calls into question the religious fidelity of the tenant who mounted a second mezuzah. But life- especially aspects of lived religion- is immensely more complicated, giving way to myriad more possibilities. If the smaller mezuzah was so heavily painted over that the new tenant was unable to inspect the integrity of the enclosed prayer scroll, they may have simply installed a new one. Perhaps the mezuzah of the new tenant had great personal history and meaning, and the power of this connection superseded strict adherence to the religious guidelines. Regardless or the reason, these two mezuzot point to a simple truth: that everyone forms their own relationship with god, and the home becomes the physical manifestation of their interpretation. The evidence incrusted on the bedroom door molding reveals the religion of the tenants, but their personal practices and choices remain unknown- and are perhaps eternally unknowable- to Museum researchers.

The mezuzot become even more complicated when considering that another guideline for mezuzot prohibits them being painted over. Tenement apartments had high rates of turnover and landlords frequently repainted vacant apartments to make them appealing to potential renters. The contracted painters were under pressure from landlords to complete their work as fast as possible, which often manifested in abundant drips, spills, and errors. Painting over a mezuzah violates religious guidelines, but speaks to the urgency with which contract painters did their work. One imagines that a team of Jewish painters would know better, but it’s not fair to assume that every practicing Jew was familiar with the changes and evolution of the mezuzah guidelines. The mezuzah’s origin is biblical- obviously predating industrial oil enamel paint- and over time the guidelines were expanded and reinterpreted in response to new technologies. A Jewish house painter might not know about the painting prohibition. Or perhaps assuming that the new tenant would install their own, and in a rush to get the job done, brushed paint over the previous tenant’s mezuzah.  Add to these conjectures the undeniable possibility that the painters weren’t Jewish and were also unable to communicate in Yiddish. Again, while we cannot know for certain who the painters were or why they coated over these two mezuzot. At the very least we can speculate that a combination of haste and unawareness of Jewish etiquette resulted in the preservation of these mezuzot under decades of paint.

Evidence of other religions are likewise preserved on the bedroom door. By the late 1970’s a family of immigrants from China took residence in apartment #7. Like the Jewish families before them, these new tenants affixed symbolism correspondent to their faith to the bedroom door directly above their son’s name. The Lower East Side was already on the cusp of great changes during the time the Epstein’s lived in 83 Delancey, and by the 1970’s the Lower East Side was no longer distinguished by one immigrant group- indeed it had become a place of incredible diversity. Puerto Rican and African American migrants lived alongside Jewish immigrants and refugees and a growing number of Chinese immigrant families. Spanish, Yiddish, Italian, German, and dialects of Chinese were as much a part of the street as English was. The range of faith institutions swelled to meet the needs of these new residents, and in time storefront Temples and Botanicas stood side-by-side with Churches and Synagogues.

Apartment #7’s bedroom door and surrounding doorframe not only reflects the diversity of the 1970’s, it serves as the gateway to generations of Lower East Side history. Unassuming and overlooked because of their ubiquity, the common elements of tenement apartments (doors, molding, paint and wallpaper layers), are silently waiting for their stories to be told. And in this way, we are always on the threshold of a dialogue with the past.

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