By Patrick Hedlund
DNAinfo News Editor
LOWER EAST SIDE — When crews began renovating a century-old building at the corner of Orchard and Delancey streets for conversion into a new visitors' center for the Tenement Museum, they were befuddled to find what appeared to be a hidden room in the basement of the five-story structure.
After peeling back some plywood and a layer of drywall, they discovered a bounty of stolen goods stashed away, including suitcases swiped from JFK Airport, work tools robbed from construction sites, stereo systems, records, videos and "dubious magazines," said project architect Nick Leahy.
"It was very sort of Pompeii," he explained, noting the "forensic-type" work required during renovations. "Like Rome excavation."
But for the Tenement Museum — which seeks to preserve the past by educating visitors about the Lower East Side immigrant experience — the crumbling building's secret history is just as important as its future incarnation as a state-of-the-art community center.
After purchasing the building at 103 Orchard St. a few years back, the Museum is preparing to open the new three-story space sometime this summer, allowing the popular attraction to grow into 10,000 additional square feet and expand its programming capabilities right across the street from its current headquarters.
A tour of the under-construction space on Wednesday revealed the meticulous work required to re-stabilize the 1889 structure, which was built well before building codes existed and stands today with "just gravity holding it up," Leahy said.
When completed, the Sadie Samuelson Levy Immigrant Heritage Center will house new classrooms and exhibition space, while also preserving a piece of the Lower East Side that would have likely been gobbled up by developers and demolished, Leahy added.
"All we're trying to do is explain the history and structural genealogy of the building," the architect said, pointing to sagging and rotting pieces of the structure that have since been reinforced.
The project is part of the Tenement Museum's multimillion-dollar capital campaign kicked off by now-retired founder Ruth Abram, who made a bid for the property when it went on the market during the area's real estate boom.
"The reality is it generates revenue for the museum," said David Eng, vice president of public affairs for the Museum, noting that the original building will be preserved as much as possible, including the tenants living on the top three floors.
"It's a combination of the old and the new."
Aside from a few additions — like installing a new stairwell and elevator — the building will appear much as it did more than a century ago.
"It's the idea of creating sort of a portal," Leahy said of refurbishing the space while respecting its past. "It will all of sudden have a presence in the neighborhood."