Darkest Hour: Visiting the Churchill War Rooms

A visit to the Churchill War Rooms in London: photographs and history of this famous underground complex where Winston Churchill directed the war.

Darkest Hour: The statue of Winston Churchill looks towards the Houses of Parliament and Big Ben. Photograph
Darkest Hour: The statue of Winston Churchill looks towards the Houses of Parliament and Big Ben. Photograph, iStock Photos.

You haven’t seen home in 3 days, and the thing is . . . you aren’t sure your home is actually still there. The bombing has been relentless for nights. One of the reports you read indicates one hit very, very close to your street.

Recently, you whole existence seems to be defined by a warren of passageways and rooms just a few feet below the ground. You’ve been awake for 18 hours now, and you’ll be spending another night in the dormitory here. The mad clatter of typing gets suddenly louder as someone opens a door.

The air, heavy with cigarette smoke, is stale in other ways that have become normal: a combination of food smells lingering from supper a couple of hours ago, and a tinge of the latrine that never seems to quite go away. But he’s here — you’re sure of it. There’s the unmistakable odor of a cigar somewhere close. And that always means the PM is nearby . . .

I visited the Churchill War Rooms when I was last in London. I had planned to write about the War Rooms later this spring, but after seeing Darkest Hour yesterday — I can think of little else. It immediately took me back to my exploration of the underground complex where the leaders of the British Government directed WWII.

It doesn’t take much to imagine yourself on staff and part of this extraordinary period in history.

The London Milkman, 1940
The London Milkman, 1940. The British government censored photographs of Luftwaffe bombing to prevent the Germans from knowing how the British countermeasures were working. This was a staged photograph, designed to say to both the British AND the Germans that English daily life continued — despite the best efforts of the Nazis to destroy their spirit.

Yes. We all think we understand how horrific the bombing of Britain was, but the gulf between an academic understanding, and a personal knowledge is vast. Look at the map below showing the sites of all the bombs dropped between October 7, 1940, and June 6, 1941.

Chilling, isn’t it?

There is something about the visual — all of those pins, all of those bombs, so thick at this zoom level that they all simply merge together in a massive red lump. The brilliance of this project is that on the Bomb Site Project, you can zoom in to the detail of each, single bomb strike, street by street, and bring up information and pictures.

Map from the Bomb Sight Project
“The Bomb Sight project is mapping the London WW2 bomb census between 7/10/1940 and 06/06/1941. Previously available only by viewing in the Reading Room at The National Archives, Bomb Sight is making the maps available to citizen researchers, academics and students. They will be able to explore where the bombs fell and to discover memories and photographs from the period.” — from the Bomb Sight Project

As the 1930’s progressed and the situation in Europe deteriorated, many in the British government thought that having an alternative meeting site, protected from potential bombing, was imperative. But indeed, with budget cuts and a habit of continually putting the project off, there nearly wasn’t an underground war room. While the idea had been under discussion for some years, going back to 1933 when Hitler left the League of Nations, nothing had been done.

On March 12, 1938, German troops entered Austria to force its incorporation into the Nazi state. At this time, the British government “planned” to include an underground war room in the basement of a building that was to be constructed and completed in, perhaps,  four years time.

On March 16, 1938, Colonel Hastings Ismay (Deputy Secretary of the Committee of Imperial Defence) felt sure hostilities were imminent, and there was no time to wait for new construction. He had available basement spaces surveyed, and by May 31, 1938, identified the basements under the New Public Offices (now the Treasury) on Great George Street as the ones best suited to their needs.

The intention was for this to be a temporary underground headquarters until something better could be built. Ismay assigned Brigadier Leslie Hollis to manage the conversion of the space into the central nervous system for a war-time government, and it was full steam ahead.

Hitler reviews troops in Prague after annexation of the Sudetenland.
Hitler reviews troops in Prague after annexation of the Sudetenland.

In September 1938, as Hitler threatened to annex Czechoslovakia, Ismay rushed into outfitting a ventilation system and reinforcing the ceilings of the basement rooms.

Then came the Munich Agreement: on September 30, 1938, Germany, Great Britain, France, and Italy reached an agreement that permitted German annexation of the Sudetenland in western Czechoslovakia.

While this agreement did little else beneficial, it bought time for the War Room project to be improved to the point it could actually be used. It took much of 1939 to convert what Hollis called ‘the hole in the ground’ to the set of facilities we see today. The first test meeting held in the War Rooms came on October 21, 1939.

May 10, 1940, Winston Churchill became Prime Minister. Just a few days later, he went down into the underground complex to look at the Cabinet Room. The moment was later described by Brigadier Leslie Hollis:

As he looked around the empty room, the poignancy if the moment touched him. No one could say what the news would be within the hour, whether or not England was even then under her first invasion in a thousand years. The little group stood for a moment in silence under the humming fans, each thinking his own thoughts, and then Mr. Churchill took his cigar out of his mouth and pointed at the homely wooden chair at the head of the table. ‘This is the room from which I’ll direct the war,’ he said slowly.

Winston Churchill in the Map Room, July 1945, with and Captain RP Pim next to him.
Winston Churchill in the Map Room, July 1945, with and Captain RP Pim next to him.

The Main Corridor

Main Corridor in the War Rooms in London
Main Corridor in the War Rooms.
Weather Indicator in the Churchill War Rooms letting people know what things were like above ground.
Weather Indicator letting people know what things were like above ground.

What’s the weather like outside? You certainly don’t know if you’ve been below ground for any length of time. Check your handy weather indicator sign to the left — Fine and Warm today! And that’s a good thing isn’t it? Did you know that if it says “Windy” that’s a euphemism for heavy bombing in progress!

War Cabinet Room in the Churchill War Rooms
War Cabinet Room. Photograph, Ann Fisher.

Cabinet Room

The War Cabinet met every day, sometimes twice a day, depending current circumstances.

“The morning meeting invariably starts with reports by the Services on the military situation, and by the Foreign Secretary on political developments.” — General Ismay

War Cabinet Room in the Churchill War Rooms in London
Another view of the War Cabinet Room. Photograph, Ann Fisher.

The Imperial War Museum chose to preserve the Cabinet Room the way it would have looked just before a meeting on October 15, 1940, when bombs had caused significant damage to 10 Downing Street the night before — an event that finally persuaded Churchill to meet regularly in the underground War Rooms.

Note the layout of the seating.

Churchill would have been seated in front of the map where his red dispatch box is, and the cabinet members in the other seats around the outside of the square.

The seats in the inside of the square? The hot seats, where heads of the Army, Navy, and Air Force would sit directly across from the PM to be grilled.

How would you feel staring eyeball to eyeball with Winston Churchill?

Map Room

One week before the war began, the first team of officers took their seats in the Map Room. As the central nervous system of all war planning the Map Room was never empty. Shifts of staff worked round the clock for six years . . . until the war was over and the entire War Room complex closed and locked.

The Map Room looks as it did at the end of the war, reflecting Allied positions in the hours before Japan’s surrender.

The Map Room in the underground War Rooms in London
Churchill’s favorite room in the underground facility? The map room. Photograph, Ann Fisher

Churchill’s Room

Churchill's private room in the underground complex. Across the room is his desk where he delivered several addresses to the nation on the BBC.
Churchill’s private room in the underground complex. Across the room is his desk where he delivered several addresses to the nation on the BBC. Photograph, Ann Fisher.

Just next to the map room, you’ll find Churchill’s private room. While he spent only a handful of nights in his underground bedroom, he regularly used the room as an office before or after meetings with the War Cabinet. Churchill also took a number of his famous afternoon naps here. Additionally, four of his BBC broadcasts were made from the desk in this room.

You’ll find photographs of more of the rooms in the underground complex below, including the Chiefs of Staff room, Mrs. Churchill’s bedroom, as well as the Churchill’s kitchen and dining room.

In the fall of 1940, Churchill discovered that the War Rooms were not strong enough to survive a direct hit from a bomb. On his orders, a concrete slab was built between the basement ceiling and the floor of the building above, and other sections of the War Rooms were filled with concrete to make them more bomb-resistant.

End of the War

On Tuesday, August 16, 1945, the doors to the War Rooms were closed. Even then, the British government recognized the extraordinary historic value of the space. According to Asbury’s book the Secrets of Churchill’s War Rooms, impromptu tours of the space were happening as early as 1946, even though there were still top secret documents present. These were removed in 1947.

In the 1970’s, as many as 5,000 people were touring the War Rooms each year. With growing concern about the conservation of the site and its contents, the IWM (Imperial War Museum) finally took steps to turn the space into a museum. On April 4, 1984, the Churchill War Rooms officially opened to the public.

Darkest Hour and the War Rooms

Gary Oldman plays Winston Churchill in Darkest Hour (Universal Pictures).
Gary Oldman plays Winston Churchill in Darkest Hour (Universal Pictures).

Joe Wright’s film Darkest Hour starring Gary Oldman as Churchill has been roundly acclaimed by both historians and film critics. This is one of my favorite films of 2017, and is now on my list of best WWII films ever made.

Scenes from the film take place in Parliament, and 10 Downing Street of course, but nearly four weeks of filming happened in the War Rooms, which were painstakingly reproduced by designer Sarah Greenwood at Ealing Studios in London.

In an interview with Mental Floss magazine, Greenwood said, “I designed [the War Rooms set], drew up the rough plans and everything over a weekend, and when I showed it to Joe, he was just like—and this is very rare—he was like, ‘Yep, that’s great.’ There were very few changes that we made to that,” Greenwood says. “And I think that came from knowing what it was going to be like. Because we’d been to the real War Rooms, we knew what we were trying to capture.”

If you want to get a sense of Churchill in these spaces, the Darkest Hour is the perfect film to watch before a visit to the War Rooms.

Two thoughtful reviews of Darkest Hour are available here: RogerEbert.com and the review in The Atlantic.

Gary Oldman as Churchill in the Map Room.
Gary Oldman as Churchill in the Map Room.

Information for Visiting the Churchill War Rooms

How long should you spend at the Churchill War Rooms?

I would say, at minimum, plan for a visit of 90 minutes. For those with a great interest in WWII, you could easily spend half a day.

In addition to the War Rooms, your admission gets you into the Churchill Museum, an award winning interactive museum about the life and times of Winston Churchill. You’ll find the entrance to the Churchill Museum on your tour of the War Rooms. On my visit, due to time constraints, I focused on the War Rooms. For more information, visit the Churchill Museum information here.

If you do want to spend several hours here, the War Rooms has a Cafe that is quite good. They serve tarts, stews, a variety of salads, and sandwiches. Conveniently located partway through the War Room path, it’s a great place to rest and ready yourself for more time exploring.

Cost

Tickets to visit the Churchill War Rooms are priced two ways: purchased day of visit, most expensive £21 – Adult — (bought ahead online £18.90),  £10.50 – child, 5 – 15 — (bought ahead online£9.45), as of January 2018. There is family pricing that varies depending on the number of adults.

Statue of Winston Churchill facing the Houses of Parliament and Big Ben.
Statue of Winston Churchill facing the Houses of Parliament and Big Ben. Photograph, Mohana Anton Meryl, iStock Photos.

Seeing the War Rooms for less money: If you are doing general sightseeing around London, consider buying a London Pass that gives entry t0 over 70 attractions, including the Churchill War Rooms. Also included is a one day hop-on hop-off bus pass.

You can buy the pass in 1 day up to 6 day lengths. The London Pass is sold by a number of vendors. I recommend reading about the pass on the official London Pass site and then compare prices at Viator (London Pass on Viator), where I found the best price. Viator also gives you the option of purchasing the London Pass in conjunction with an Oyster Card for travel on the red buses and London Underground.

As you compare prices, keep in mind that on the official site, prices are in British Pounds, so you’ll need to convert them to compare value.

Location

Entrance to the Churchill War Rooms, Clive Steps, London
Entrance to the Churchill War Rooms. Photograph, Ann Fisher.

 

You’ll find the entrance to the Churchill War Rooms at the bottom of the Clive Steps. See the map below for directions.

Other Tips for seeing the War Rooms

During the summer and other high-travel seasons, the Churchill War Rooms will be crowded. Very crowded. It’s a tight warren-like maze of hallways and rooms, and it’s a big tourist draw, so it simply makes sense to be there when they open.

If you are a World War II buff, then the Churchill War Rooms should be on your short list of places to visit in London. If your significant other and/or children aren’t interested, do yourself a favor. DITCH THEM.  Send them off to do something they like, then go get your Churchill on! All of you will be happy you did . . .


Interested in WWII Planes?

Onboard the B-17 Flying Fortress

Beautiful: The slow drone of four radial piston engines on a crystal clear November morning as I stepped back in time with this great warbird. This morning, I drove out to a small airport north of Houston for a bucket list experience.


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Walking Tour of Florence with a Visit to the David

A review of my 2017 small group walking tour of Florence, skipping the line to see Michelangelo’s David, with the family-owned company, LivItaly Tours.

Piazza della Signoria on a florence italy walking tour
On my LivItaly walking tour, a wonderful view standing in the doorway of the Palazzo Vecchio looking out on the Piazza della Signoria in Florence. Photograph, Ann Fisher.

On Wednesday, I spent a wonderful afternoon with a small group tour from LivItaly Tours.

This tour was nothing like those groups of 20 to 40 you see herding past where the guide is holding a little flag and chirping at the people on a radio transmitter. If you are trying to choose from among the many Florence tours available, this is not the direction I would go.

The maximum group size on a LivItaly Tour is six people. This means your walking tour of Florence feels more like a stroll with friends than one of those larger, impersonal groups — which frankly make me want to run in the opposite direction.

Walks of Florence with LivTaly Tours - Rape of the Sabine
Rape of the Sabine by Giambologna in the Loggia dei Lanzi. Photograph, Ann Fisher.

Our guide, Francesca, met us in the Piazza della Signoria right in front of the famous Caffé Rivoire.

This three hour walking tour started in the Piazza della Signoria, went past the Uffizi to stop on the Arno, lead us through the Piazza Repubblica to the Duomo, then down the Via de Martelli to the Palazzo Medici. We arrived at the Academia, and swept right in past the line to see Michelangelo’s David. The final 30 – 40 minutes of time were in the Academia with the David.

Francesca, a licensed guide for Florence and many other cities in Tuscany, was not only knowledgable — but very funny.

My afternoon with her was like having my own storyteller in the middle of the most important city of the Italian Renaissance. The great thing about the group of six, is that our afternoon was a conversational experience. Everyone had a chance to ask questions.

While I’ve been to Florence a number of times, Francesca connected the Florence of the Roman period, the medieval period, the Renaissance period, and finally the modern period in a way that increased my understanding and connection to the city, really bringing it to life.

walks of italy florence - we stopped in the Piazza della Repubblica
The Piazza della Repubblica in Florence. Photograph, Ann Fisher.
Walking tours of Florence with LivItaly - use bronze 3D map of Florence
Our guide from LivItaly Tours uses the 3D bronze map of Florence to show the course of the medieval wall around the city. Photograph, Ann Fisher.

Just a block away from the Arno, Francesca led us down one of the remaining medieval streets in Florence as we talked about the cramped city and the lack of light of that period, then out into the Piazza della Repubblica.

This had been the site of the forum during the Roman period, then the old market, and finally the Piazza della Repubblica when Florence was briefly the capital of the newly united Italy (1865 – 1871).

We paused in the Piazza to use the bronze model of the city to discuss the original streets dating back to the Roman period, then to look at where the medieval walls had been, before walking towards the Duomo.

Il Duomo -- walking tours of Florence with Livitaly
Francesca explained the machines Brunelleschi used to build the Dome of Santa Maria del Fiore — knowledge that had been lost following the fall of the Roman empire. Walks of Italy, Florence. Photograph, Ann Fisher

In front of the Duomo, we stopped at the Baptistry to look at the copy of Ghiberti’s Gates of Paradise (originals are in the Opera del Duomo) as Francesca explained the doors, and then the competition for the first set of Baptistry doors that marked the beginning of the Renaissance. We were a lively group with questions, and the whole thing was a lot of fun and a great learning experience.

Walking tour of Florence - no line for the David
If you have a limited time in Florence, which is true of most visitors, it is very important not to waste your day standing in line to see the David. Photograph, Ann Fisher.

Skipping the Line to Visit Michelangelo’s David

If you do not make plans ahead, and you simply arrive expecting to walk in and see the David, you may be out of luck.

When we arrived at the Academia museum, and the line to see the David still stretched most of the way down the block — so far, that with the time left before the Academia closed, that the people at the very back might get to enter.

Long line outside the Academia waiting to see Michelangelo's David.
It’s not unusual to have to wait two hours in line at the Academia to see the David. Photograph, Ann Fisher.

Our little group waited while Francesca picked up our reserved tickets, and as we did, a husband and his wife had a very public melt-down outside of the museum.

“I don’t know why you thought you knew SO MUCH BETTER about how to do this than someone who ACTUALLY LIVES HERE!!” said the husband, his face increasingly red as he spoke.

His wife seemed close to tears. “I just didn’t think the line would be this long, since we aren’t here in the summer.”

“We’re not going to get in today, and we leave first thing in the morning! Mary Ellen bought a reserved ticket ahead, like Piero told her to . . .  but now there are no more of those left this afternoon!”

“Joe, I’m so sorry.”

He bellowed, “Well, at least SHE’S going to get to see him!”

“I wish you would just calm down . . . ”

“You knew that the David was the only thing I really wanted to see here, and now it’s not going to happen!! . . . And I’m not going to calm down!”

We saw the David on our walking tour of Florence.
The David, created 1501-1504 by Michelangelo, walking tour Florence. Photograph, Ann Fisher.

At this point, Francesca re-appeared and whisked us straight into the Academia.

I felt incredibly sorry for that couple. Can you reserve tickets to see the David without taking a tour? Yes, you absolutely can, and if you’re not going to take a walking tour, you definitely need to do that.

The reason this is so much better is that visiting the David with a guide gives you the full context for this amazing work of art. Francesca did a fine job of telling the story of how the young Michelangelo returned from Rome after his success with the Pieta and won the contract to carve the enormous block of marble.

The citizens of Florence were awestruck with the David when they first saw him completed in 1504. David was a GIANT then, and he is a GIANT now.

Francesca concluded the LivItaly Tour at his feet, leaving us to spend as much time with this masterpiece as each of us liked.

I finished my day with a cocktail at Caffé Rivoire, to watch the light in the piazza, and to think about my walk — which had been perfect. Returning to sit in the Piazza della Signoria was coming full circle, a contemplation of my afternoon of time-travel through Italian history.


If you’re looking for: walks of Italy, Florence — you’ve found a review of my 2017 walking tour of Florence with Livitaly Tours.


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Small Group Walking Tour of Florence with the David


Disclaimer: Many thanks to LivItaly Tours for hosting me on their walking tour. As always, opinions and experiences are honest and my own. I’ll never recommend anything I didn’t love myself.

 

Walking Safari: Day One

We walked single-file out of the Camp Tena Tena just after dawn on a Sunday morning. There were six of us. In the lead, Chris carried the rifle, followed by Braston our guide. I came next, then my daughter, Catherine, my sister Carolyn, and finally Bishod, guide in training. To walk the savannah, down, up and over empty oxbow lakes, and then step into the cool shade of a grove of ebony — it’s like that. You feel Africa close.

Elephant in South Luangwa National Park
In her hills and hollows, in her wrinkles, perhaps . . . there is the topography of the whole earth. African Elephant. Photograph, Ann Fisher

We walked single-file out of the Camp Tena Tena just after dawn on a Sunday morning. There were six of us. In the lead, Chris carried the rifle, followed by Braston our guide. I came next, then my daughter, Catherine, my sister Carolyn, and finally Bishod, guide in training.

Imagine stretching out your hands and running them over the face of the elephant there, just there in the picture, above.

Feel the smooth tusks, and let your fingers run up across the wide variety of skin, craggy with wrinkles. Hear her breath, and let her ruffle your hair with her trunk. Smell the grassiness of the twigs and leaves she chews.

To walk the savannah, down, up and over empty oxbow lakes, and then step into the cool shade of a grove of ebony — it’s like that. You feel Africa close.

The word safari means an expedition to observe or hunt animals in their natural habitat. “Safari” entered the English language in 1869, from Swahili,  but was originally from the Arabic term safara, meaning to travel. To walk in the bush, to be with the animals on foot is the truest experience of the phrase, “to be on safari.”

We walked from 6:30 until about 10:45 in the morning, when we walked into Luangwa Bush Camp. This temporary, true camp rotates between four camp sites.

Luangwa Bush Camp walking safari Robin Pope Safaris
We stopped for a tea break each morning, and Bishod would prepare tea or coffee for all of us. Photograph, Ann Fisher.

We met our guide Braston at breakfast that morning, and he covered the basics: we walk single file, always single file, with Chris on the lead with the rifle. If there is anything, we hold still, maintain the line.

Was I afraid? That first morning, I admit that I was uncomfortable. I’d just met Braston, Chris, and Bishod, and here we were walking into the bush with them. The night before we’d seen a pride of lions.

We’d barely been walking twenty minutes when we surprised a hippo who then went crashing through the thicket, right past us, to get away. We all froze, just as instructed.

It was wonderful.

Hyena South Luangwa National Park Zambia
The hyena waits, listening, sifting the air for smells, for clues there may be a kill to find, to steal. Photograph, Ann Fisher
Crocodile feeds on hippo carcass
The day before we started our walking safari, I was looking at the geese with my camera when suddenly a crocodile lunged out of the water to feed on the hippo.

We walked around one of the many lagoons, this one where we’d seen  a croc feeding on a dead hippo the day before. The smell of decay was strong and sweet, the body still almost completely intact.

The hippo was too far out in the water for the lion and hyena to get to, and the crocs would not really be able to break into the carcass until decay advances further, softening the tissue.

Rounding the side of another lagoon, we spotted a hyena, walked along near the den — she trotted off, but stayed close. Hyena in different parts of Africa behave differently. In some places, hyenas hunt like other predators.

Hyena Poop
No, they aren’t ping pong balls — it’s hyena poop, white as snow from all the bones they eat. Photograph, Carolyn Fisher.

In South Luangwa, food is plentiful, and the hyena act as scavengers — and rarely take a kill themselves.

Part of a walking safari is tracking — learning about animals and spoor — and quite surprisingly for us, hyena poop is white! They consume so much calcium as they eat bone that the stuff stands out like it’s lit from within, it’s so bright.

Baby Giraffe South Luangwa National Park Zambia
When we first came upon the tower of giraffes, this baby sprinted towards the safety of its mom. Photograph, Ann Fisher.
a Tower of Giraffes
We settled in for tea, and the giraffes returned their focus to breakfasting on leaves. Photograph, Ann Fisher.

We spent thirty minutes or so watching a tower of giraffes — yes, learning the British collective words for animals, great fun! Braston suggested it was time to take a break and have some tea, and we found a spot very close to our long-necked friends. Morning tea and giraffes — what could be better?

Chris walked around several of the bushes in our immediate vicinity, checking to be sure everything was safe, and Braston designated one for our latrine needs. Yes, if you’re going to walk in the bush on a remote African safari, you’re going to poop in the bush, just like the hyena :-).

Crocodile tracks South Luangwa National Park Zambia
The arrows point out the drag line of the crocodile’s tail, the sweeping scratch marks of its claws, and the close-up shows the scale pattern in the tracks. Fascinating stuff!

Following tea, we spent close to another two hours walking, stopping to examine lion tracks, crocodile tracks — which consist of a tail dragging line and scaly foot prints, and porcupine tracks. Braston broke open aardvark dung to show the ant remains speckled inside of it. Our favorite animal path? The hippo highways — trails the hippos make in their nocturnal grazing forays into the bush, as they string necklaces of Nile cabbage out behind them.

Luangwa Bush Camp Tent, Robin Pope Safaris walking safari
Our first tent at Luangwa Bush Camp. Photograph, Ann Fisher.

Around 10:30, we paused to watch a “business” of mongoose cross our trail before walking into our camp. After four hours out in the bush, it was lovely to walk to Luangwa Bush Camp (LBC) with everything set up and waiting for us. Braston showed us the layout — our tents, two pit latrines with comfy toilet seats, a bucket shower rig, and a full bar. All just for us. LBC maximum capacity is three tents, a total of six guests, but we had it all to ourselves.

Luangwa Bush Camp Robin Pope Safaris Walking Safari
Catherine reviews photographs — our view at this location? A large pod of hippos on the great Luangwa River. Alternate collective word for hippos: a “bloat” :-). Photographs, Ann Fisher.

Our wonderful young camp cook, Boniface, served lunch at 11:30 on a table looking out on the hippos, and afterwards it was time for siesta.

Catherine sacked out in our tent, finding the beds very comfy — mattresses on the floor of the tent, made up with soft cotton sheets and coverlet. I settled in one of the camp chairs to write and watch the hippo family, who had decided that the morning standing in the river had quite exhausted all of them. It was time for a pod-wide afternoon sunbath-nap combo.

I was working on an account of the day in my journal, when I was surprised to hear an extraordinarily loud snoring. I looked at the hippos, but then realized it was coming from behind me. It was Catherine!

Hippos nap on the river beach of the Luangwa
Siesta for all! The hippos snooze away the warm middle of the day. Photograph, Ann Fisher.

Following our afternoon tea we walked back out of camp to explore further. Just before sunset, Isaac met us with the Range Rover at the agreed location near the lagoon. We watched the sun go down, and the lovely fingernail moon begin to show itself, and enjoyed our world of bird song and frogs, and the whooshing blow of a hippo surfacing. It was a good time to be quiet, enjoy our wine, and watch the evening come.

Sunset on a lagoon in South Luangwa National Park
Sunset on the lagoon – magical time. Photograph, Ann Fisher
Female Leopard Luangwa National Park Zambia
Beautiful female leopard on the hunt. Photograph, Cat Gassiot.

When we finally clambered up into the Rover, it was time for a bit of night game-driving. I remember saying to Carolyn, “the day has been perfect. It doesn’t make any difference to me if we see nothing at all.”

The day had one more gift for us, a female leopard on the hunt. We stayed with her only briefly.

We were tired and it was time for everyone to go their own way.

Our first day of the walking safari had been perfect, and we arrived back in camp to find it full of warm kerosene light, and Boniface with dinner nearly ready.

Dinner in Luangwa Bush Camp
Cat, Carolyn, and Braston talk about the day while we wait for dinner. Photograph, Ann Fisher

This is the second in a series of posts reviewing our safari in Zambia. We spent 12 days with Robin Pope Safaris: 8 days on game drives at Tena Tena, Nsefu, and Luangwa River camp.

Read the first installment of safari series here, Our African Safari in Zambia:

 

Visiting the Tenement Museum

Mulberry Street on New York's Lower East Side, ca. 1900
Mulberry Street on New York’s Lower East Side, ca. 1900.

One of the most fascinating museums in the United States stands at the corner of Delancey and Orchard Street on the Lower East Side of New York City.

Stepping into the Tenement Museum is time travel into the lives of hardworking American immigrant families.

You pick your year. Would you like to see 1873? What about the depression of the 1930’s? Or a visit with an Irish family in the 1860’s, when a common line in employment ads was: Irish Need Not Apply. When you step into 97 Orchard street, you step back into a vital part of American history.

Joseph was off to work.

The coal stove was smoking a bit, but at least the kitchen was warm. Bridget put her hand on the baby’s forehead for a moment, then picked up the pail. Agnes had been sick for days, and was now weak from the dysentery. And it was wash day. She sighed. The weather was too poor to do the laundry outside, and that meant hauling a number of buckets of water up four flights of stairs. She opened the door and nearly ran into Mrs. Stein in the dark hallway.

Moore apartment kitchen, The Tenement Museum.
The Moore Apartment Kitchen. Photograph Courtesy of the Lower East Side Tenement Museum

If you immigrated to New York in the 1860’s, this could have been part of your living experience on the Lower East Side.

Approximately 30 million immigrants entered the U.S. between 1870 and 1930, many of them coming through the port of New York — either to Castle Garden (Castle Clinton), or to Ellis Island which opened in 1892.

The population of New York city exploded — increasing more than 50 times over during the 19th century – going from 79,000 in 1800 to more than 3.4 million by 1900.

The demand for housing was extraordinary.

The nineteenth century answer to this problem?  The American tenement.

They were narrow buildings, 25×100 feet, and in New York, predominantly five or six stories tall. The apartments were normally three, sometimes four rooms, depending on the tenement, and around 350 square feet total. They were crowded and dark, hot in the summer, cold in the winter, and poorly ventilated. There was no indoor plumbing until the early 1900’s.

It’s important to understand that living conditions in the tenements of New York varied dramatically.

The worst of the tenements were horrible — and were documented by Jacob Riis in How the Other Half Lives. However, there was a tendency for social activists of the day to lump all of the tenements together, focusing on the worst to help achieve change.

Of course things aren’t that simple — and understanding this may be one of the great gifts of visiting the Tenement Museum.

Tenement Hallway Lower East Side
The narrow first floor hallway of 97 Orchard Street. The Tenement Act of 1901 required lighting to be installed, but prior to that tenement hallways were dark, lit only from the entryway, skylights, and apartment transoms.  Photograph courtesy of the Lower East Side Tenement Museum.

From 1863-1935, more than 7,000 people from 20 different countries called 97 Orchard Street home.

The Tenement Museum in the Lower East Side of Manhattan brings this history to life for 220,000 visitors annually, more than visit many of the larger history museums in New York. It is an affiliate of the National Park Service, linked with the immigrant landmarks of Ellis Island, the Statue of Liberty, and Castle Garden (Castle Clinton).

97 Orchard Street sign. The first tenement to be listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
97 Orchard Street. It is the first tenement to be listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

When I mentioned visiting the Tenement Museum, one of my friends envisioned glass cases with artifacts and dioramas. But it’s not that kind of museum.

The museum did research on residents of 97 Orchard Street, a combination of census data and genealogy, and then information, photographs, and recorded oral history from current families whose parents, grandparents, or great-grandparents had lived there. A group of apartments has been renovated to different points in the building’s history to represent the families that occupied them.

The only way to visit the Orchard Street tenement is one of the tours, which are interactive and story-telling in the way they are conducted. On both of my visits, there was animated discussion between the guide and the visitors, sharing history and discussing what life would have been like for the families whose homes we were visiting.

Current Tenement Museum Tours:

  • Hard Times (available in 1 and 2 hour versions)
  • Irish Outsiders
  • Shop Life
  • Sweatshop Workers (available in 1 and 2 hour versions)
  • Tastings at the Tenement
  • Exploring 97 Orchard
  • Coming Soon! 103 Orchard
  • Explore the tours in more detail

I’ve visited the Tenement Museum twice now.

When my daughter Catherine was fifteen, I brought her to NYC for her first visit. I’d read about the Tenement Museum, and I thought it would be a way to give her a true sense of the history of the city, something to juxtapose with the grandeur of, say, the Metropolitan Museum.

The Baldizzi Apartment at the Tenement Museum
The Baldizzi Apartment at the Tenement Museum. Photograph courtesy of the Lower East Side Tenement Museum.

We took the Hard Times tour, which focused on two families: the Gumpertz family (from Germany) during the crisis of 1873, and the Baldizzi family (from Italy) during the depression of the 1930’s.

Just last weekend, I returned for the Irish Outsiders tour. This time I visited the apartment of Joseph and Bridget Moore who lived at 97 Orchard Street in 1869.

moore-apartment-parlor-new-keiko-niwa-w2
Joseph and Bridget Moore’s parlor. The Moore’s lived at 97 Orchard Street in 1869. Photograph courtesy of the Lower East Side Tenement Museum.

My advice is to start with the Hard Times tour. Since it addresses two different time periods and families with different ethnic backgrounds, I think it’s a great introduction to the museum.

If you live in the United States, your family immigrated – unless you happen to be native American.

All of our families have interesting stories. Mine came to America in the 1700’s, Hugenots escaping religious persecution, and then a Scots-Irish family looking for a better future. Listening to different immigration experiences connects us on a deep level.

It just depends on when your ancestors arrived as to the types of hardships they faced. It is estimated that 40 percent of all current U.S. citizens trace at least one of their ancestors to Ellis Island.

Tenement Museum Shop and Bookstore

97 Orchard Street: An Edible History of Five Immigrant Families in One New York Tenement, a book by Jane Ziegelman.
97 Orchard Street: An Edible History of Five Immigrant Families in One New York Tenement, a book by Jane Ziegelman.

On both of my visits to the Tenement Museum, I was impressed by their shop. My readers know I love small, independent bookstores, and this is a fine one with a focused collection.

I brought home two books this time, A Tenement Story: The History of 97 Orchard Street, and The Lower East Side Tenement Museum, and 97 Orchard Street: An Edible History of Five Immigrant Families in One New York Tenement.

I am particularly taken with the 97 Orchard Street: An Edible History by Jane Ziegelman. Here is an excerpt of her book:

“Our visit with Mrs. Gumpertz begins on a Friday, late morning, over a steaming pot of fish, a carp. The fish lays snugly in an oblong vessel, like a newborn in a watery cradle. From our vantage point, it looks intact. In reality, however, the fish has been surgically disassembled and reassembled. It is the kind of culinary operation worthy of a trained professional, yet the responsible party is standing in front of us, an ordinary home cook.

The process begins with a slit down the backbone. Mrs. Gumpertz opens the fish the same way one opens a book. Carefully, she scrapes the flesh from the skin, chopping it fine so it forms a paste, what the French call a forcemeat. Reduced to a mere envelope, head at one end, tal at the other, it is now the perfect receptacle for stuffing. Mrs. Gumpertz fills the skin with the paste and sews it shut. She lays the reconstructed carp on a bed of fish bones and onions — sliced but unpeeled — then puts it on to simmer.

Just now, she is standing over the open pot, wondering if it needs more time. She prods it with a spoon; the fish is ready. She lifts the pot from the stove, moves it to a chair in the parlor, and leaves it there to cool by an open window. Moments before sundown, start of the Jewish Sabbath, she slices her carp crosswise into ovals and lays them on a plate. The cooking broth, rich in gelatin from the fish bones, has turned to jelly. The onion skin has tinted it gold. Mrs Gumpertz spoons that up too, dabbing it over the fish in glistening puddles. To a hungry Jew at the end of the workweek, could any sight be more beautiful?” — Jane Ziegelman

If you want to buy these books, please do it through the Tenement Museum Shop online, since proceeds go to benefit the  museum.

I encourage you to visit the Tenement Museum. I found both of my tours not simply interesting, but moving — a way of connecting to this important part of American history in a very personal way. I look forward to returning on my next trip to NYC!

The Tenement Museum on Orchard Street, Lower East Side
The Tenement Museum of New York, corner of Orchard and Delancey. Photograph courtesy of the Lower East Side Tenement Museum.

When I visited last weekend, the Tenement Museum Shop was surrounded by a scaffolding, which made for a poor shot. Then I found that photographs inside of 97 Orchard Street is not allowed — which of course I respect. A big thank-you to the Tenement Museum of New York for sending the photographs!

Update note: One of my Facebook readers went to the Tenement Museum during the summer. Of course, there is no air conditioning in 97 Orchard Street. Just something to keep in mind if you are thinking about going on a really hot day!


Ann in Castolon in Big Bend National Park. Photograph, Jim Stevens

About Ann

I grew up in Mississippi and New Orleans, have lived in both Seattle and Manhattan, and finally moved back to Texas in 1990’s.

I have a darling teenage daughter who heads off to university in the fall of 2017. I have been divorced and am now widowed. Finally, I am a colon cancer survivor.

I am now writing and traveling full time — what a wonderful thing!

This website is a forum for many things. I want to talk about life, in all of its rich, wonderful and terrifying forms. I want to share my travels, my thoughts on life, and my experiences as a woman and a mom. I want to talk about the nature of reality and the meaning of life, and to celebrate being alive.

Thank you for visiting! 

I’m writing and traveling full-time now, and if you like my work, please subscribe to my blog via email.

 


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Sources

Blackmar, Elizabeth. Manhattan for rent: 1785-1850. Ithaca: Cornell U Press, 1991. Print.

Blanck, Maggie. “Life in New York.” Life in New York. N.p., n.d. Web. 02 Feb. 2017. <http://www.maggieblanck.com/NewYork/Life.html&gt;.

History.com Staff. “Ellis Island.” History.com. A&E Television Networks, 2009. Web. 03 Feb. 2017.

Plunz, Richard. “A History of Housing in New York City Reprint Edition.” N.p., 1990. Web. 02 Feb. 2017.

Seitz, Sharon. A tenement story: the history of 97 Orchard Street and the Lower East Side Tenement Museum. New York, NY: Lower East Side Tenement Museum, 2004. Print.

Stamp, Jimmy. “Pioneering Social Reformer Jacob Riis Revealed “How The Other Half Lives” in America.” Smithsonian.com. Smithsonian Institution, 7 May 2014. Web. 02 Feb. 2017. <http://www.smithsonianmag.com/history/pioneering-social-reformer-jacob-riis-revealed-how-other-half-lives-america-180951546/&gt;.

“The Tenement.” WTTW Chicago Public Media – Television and Interactive. N.p., 03 Apr. 2016. Web. 01 Feb. 2017. <http://interactive.wttw.com/ten/homes/tenement&gt;.

Ziegelman, Jane. 97 Orchard Street: An Edible History of Five Immigrant Families in One New York Tenement. New York: Harper Collins, 2010. Print.