Lower Manhattan’s 9/11 Tribute Museum —founded by FDNY Rescue 2 Firefighter (Ret) Lee Ielpi, father of Fallen FDNY Firefighter Jnathan Ielpi (9/11/01) a nearly 30,000-square-foot space located three blocks from the World Trade Center site — closed its doors yesterday afternoon, just weeks shy of the 21st anniversary of the terror attacks.
The Greenwich Street museum, which opened in 2006 nearby on Liberty Street, has struggled to stay afloat since the 2020 onset of the COVID-19 pandemic. Retired FDNY Firefighter Lee Ielpi, who cofounded the museum, said it feels like a punch to the gut. Ielpi’s son, Jonathan, Squad 288, was one of the 343 FDNY members killed on 9/11.
Jonathan’s helmet and turnout coat are on display at the museum and will be moved to the Vigilant Fire Company, in Great Neck, where Lee is a past Chief and where Jonathan was a Chief at the time of his murder. The Vigilants’ have a memorial and place of honor in their quarters.
Ielpi said that “We’ve seen over 5 million people from around the world,” since the museum opened, but the pandemic and dramatic drop in tourism to the city has made it impossible to stay open. Despite pleas for funding earlier this year, they didn’t get the money needed, so all artifacts at the museum will either go back to those who donated them or the state museum in Albany.
The much larger 9/11 Memorial and Museum will remain open, but Ielpi says it doesn’t have the personal touch that his museum had.
“Two-thirds of our income revenue annually comes from our earned income from admissions,” Jennifer Adams-Webb, co-founder of the museum and the CEO of the September 11th Families’ Association, told The Post. “We were completely closed for six months in 2020. We had been averaging 300,000 visitors a year … and last year we had a total of 26,000 visitors, so it completely annihilated our earned income.”
A destination for education and for community support among survivors and family members of those who died on 9/11, the museum moved to its 92 Greenwich St. location in 2017. The first six months of 2022 saw roughly the same number of visitors as the entirety of 2021, but outstanding capital debt combined with still-low visitation required a difficult decision to be reached.
“There’s no way we’re going to be able to dig out of this at this rate,” said Adams-Webb. “We need the state or the city to step in with other partners to be able to say, ‘We value you. We want to save this organization,’ but at this point, we can’t continue to dig into a hole.”
The 9/11 Tribute Museum had been a stopping point for American and international visitors along the path of visiting the Statue of Liberty before heading to the National September 11 Memorial & Museum, right where the Twin Towers once stood. But now, the galleries — visited by more than 5 million people since 2006 — will be disassembled for artifacts to be sent to the New York State Museum in Albany, which will keep the bulk of the collection. (An online presence will serve to keep educational resources and support going.)
Still, the home base will be gone — and without government intervention, according to Adams-Webb, it’s unlikely to return.
“We’re very proud of what we’ve been able to accomplish, but … the place for the 9/11 community to come is not here,” she said. “It’s a huge loss for those people who called this their second home, where they could come and share their story … There’s no museum that has the dual mission we have to support the community and also educate visitors that come here.”