LOWER EAST SIDE — As Kathleen O'Hara gently removed the wood boarding up an old fireplace inside the Lower East Side Tenement Museum's historic Orchard Street building, something frightening rolled out.
"The doll's head. She was a particularly creepy find," said the 25-year-old collections manager at the museum. "I saw her there and I brushed away things from around her, and she came tumbling out."
The doll's head was smeared with black dust, but her hair and teeth were still intact. To add to the doll's eerie appearance, her eyes moved.
As the museum, which operates historical walking tours, prepares its basement for the upcoming "Shop Life" exhibition in the fall, workers have found historical artifacts while exploring two fireplaces covered up for more than 50 years.
One excavation took place in March, the other in April, revealing finds such as crumpled checks, antique cosmetics containers and two decrepit doll's head, painting a stronger history of the structure built in 1863.
"We didn't really know what to expect," said O’Hara, who lives in Woodside, Queens, and has worked at the museum for about nine months. "We knew we were going to find something."
Like children investigating a wrapped present, museum workers have been eagerly peering through cracks in the wood boarding up the fireplaces.
"We could see that bottle through the cracks," said O'Hara, pointing to a tarnished container with musk crystals in it. "We could see that wheel through the cracks."
The first fireplace had so much debris mixed in with interesting artifacts that it took O'Hara two full days to delicately remove it all. The second fireplace had less and only took her the afternoon to clear out.
Another item, half a check, was from a nearby bank, according to Dave Favaloro, the museum's director of curatorial affairs.
"This check was issued by someone who had an account at the Public National Band & Trust Co., which was located in the building at the southeast corner of Orchard and Delancey," he said, after doing some research on the piece of paper.
Favaloro had previously speculated that one of the building's earlier shopkeepers in the late 1920s, Willie Scher, had a bank account there.
Once itemized and researched, O’Hara hopes to make the items part of the story behind the building, a traditional tenement built by a German immigrant named Lucas Glockner.
The bottle of musk crystals, along with another half-filled with musk oil and an almost empty bottle of nail polish, seem to hint at the possibility that cosmetics or perfumes might have been once sold at the location.
While 97 Orchard St. continuously operated as a storefront, the residences were eventually abandoned from 1934 until the museum purchased it in the late 1980s.
"More than 7,000 people from 20 different nations made their homes in our building during that time period," said Kira Garcia, the public relations manager at the museum.
As the workers continue to carefully renovate the basement into another museum space, occasionally the building reveals a little bit more about its history.
"I'm excited to watch what amounts to an archaeology dig in the middle of New York City," said Garcia.
Inside the basement, the "Shop Life" exhibition will replicate the diverse businesses that occupied the building between 1863 and 1988. It begins with a re-creation of John and Caroline Schneider's 19th-century German beer saloon, which served as an important community gathering space when the neighborhood was known as Kleindeutschland or "Little Germany."
Other restored rooms will detail Israel and Goldie Lustgarten's 1890s kosher butcher store, Max Marcus' 1930s auction house, and Sidney and Frances Meda's 1970s undergarment store.
"We are not just collecting objects from the outside world to illustrate our story, we are also displaying and including objects that we found on site," said Garcia.
"Our galleries are where it actually happened."