Joy on Eldridge Street

Erasing decades of decay, the restoration of a New York City synagogue comes to a glowing close.

Photo by Frederick Charles

 

Walking through the Lower East Side in 1971, searching for Jewish landmarks for a course he was teaching, New York University professor Gerard R. Wolfe came across the striking facade of the Eldridge Street Synagogue. The eclectic Romanesque-Moorish exterior captured his imagination, but he couldn't get inside: The doors were locked, and he later discovered that the building had no telephone listing. Persevering, he located Benjamin Markowitz, the congregation's sexton, who let him in but told him that although worshippers still gathered for Sabbath and holiday services in the basement chapel, the door that led to the sanctuary upstairs had been nailed over with a plank. No one had entered for decades.

Together, they forced open the door. What they found upon climbing the dark stairway—there was no electricity—was a sight so striking that, as Wolfe wrote in a 1994 article: "I cannot forget how my hair stood up and goose pimples arose on my back. … There was an immense brass chandelier hanging from the 70-foot ceiling with all its Victorian glass shades intact. … Brass crowns adorned the light fixtures on the walls, whose motif doubtless represented one of the three crowns of Jewish tradition." He also beheld piles of dust so thick they obscured the prayerbooks still lying on the seats, shards of colored glass everywhere, long strips of peeling paint, exposed roofing lath, and large chunks of plaster and other debris fallen from a rain-damaged ceiling. 

Many other visitors since that day have marveled at the synagogue's glories—which also include a vaulted ceiling, dozens of stained-glass windows, an elegantly carved walnut ark, trompe l'oeil murals, spacious domed galleries, detailed decorative wall stenciling, and sturdy wooden pews—or what remained of that magnificence. Until very recently, you had to squint hard to imagine the building's splendor, before decades of neglect, combined with extensive water damage, decay, and detritus, left the structure a pale ghost of its former self. And, as anyone who has toured the building over the past 20-plus years will affirm, you also had to be careful not to trip over workmen's benches, scaffolding, and paint-splattered drop cloths—signs of a long-overdue restoration that began when Wolfe, stunned as much by the sanctuary's beauty as by its deterioration, rallied supporters for the synagogue's rebirth.

As of last December, the long-absent chandelier, repaired and restored, hangs once more from the ceiling of the sanctuary, illuminating the successful completion of the $20 million revival and a bold declaration that the building has reopened to the public. Emblematic of that achievement—as well as of the community events, art shows, and historical exhibitions that will take place there—is the site's new name: no longer the Eldridge Street Synagogue, it is the Museum at Eldridge Street.

The small but vibrant congregation—a separate entity from the nonsectarian, not-for-profit museum—dates back to the 1850s and continues to meet in the basement chapel and now also the sanctuary. Since the building opened in 1887, not a single Sabbath or holiday service has ever been missed, says Tova Bookson, whose family has belonged to the shul (Yiddish for synagogue) for five (six if you count her two-year-old great-grandson) generations. She invokes a phrase from Charles Dickens' A Tale of Two Cities to describe her emotions upon the project's completion: "We've been 'recalled to life,'" she says. "That's what restoration, what preservation is all about, isn't it?"

The heart of this museum is clearly the building itself. "The Eldridge Street Synagogue (1887) is the most important artifact of Eastern European Orthodox Judaism in America," reads the 1996 statement confirming its designation as a National Historic Landmark. "It is the first great house of worship built by Eastern European Jews in the United States, located in the neighborhood through which more Jewish immigrants have passed than any other." (The building also has New York City Landmark status and is a Save America's Treasures official project.) Indeed, as the declaration suggests, prior to 1887, synagogues on the Lower East Side were housed in former churches or other structures reconfigured as shuls. This magnificent structure clearly stated that the Orthodox congregation—and, indeed, all Eastern European Jewish immigrants—now had a permanent home.

Seen from the outside, the building's grandeur comes less from its height—its cornice rises only slightly above the rows of tenements on either side—than from its breadth, and even then, not just because it takes up three tenement-sized lots. Evoking the ornate style of the exquisite larger European synagogues of the day (think Florence, Budapest, Paris), the building also echoes the great cathedrals, with a giant rose window—though with a Jewish resonance: The 12 roundels of which that window is composed are said to represent the 12 tribes of Israel and the five keyhole windows below it the five books of Moses. Stars of David decorate the windows and other elements of the facade. The building both fits into its neighborhood setting and stands out, imposingly, from it.

Today that neighborhood, on the edge of Chinatown, is still an urban gateway for immigrants, but these days the newcomers are mostly Asian. In the surrounding blocks, you'll see plenty of signs in Chinese, compared with maybe a handful in Yiddish. The kosher cafeterias that Isaac Bashevis Singer haunted no longer exist; instead, you'll find restaurants selling soups, kebabs, dumplings, and noodles of other ethnic origin. And though you'll find a Buddhist temple within paces, of the many synagogues that once flourished nearby, only a few remain, and with shrinking congregations. To Roberta Brandes Gratz, the urbanist and author who in 1986 founded an organization known as the Eldridge Street Project to shepherd the building's restoration, this cycle—of immigrant groups moving in, then moving up and out to live in more prosperous neighborhoods, and in so doing making way for the next group to repeat the pattern—comes naturally to what she calls a "classic immigrant absorption neighborhood" like the Lower East Side. "The process of change stays the same," she explains. "It's only the players who change."  

In 1886, early members of the Orthodox congregation Kahal Adas Jeshurun commissioned architects Peter and Francis William Herter to design and build a new structure for them. Finished in 1887 at the height of Eastern European Jewish immigration, the Eldridge Street Synagogue attracted members from every economic stratum: peddlers and sweatshop workers, greenhorns right off the boat, self-made successes like the banker Sender Jarmulowsky (thought to be a multimillionaire until, shortly after his death, his bank went belly-up), and over the years such well-known figures as entertainer Eddie Cantor, scientist Jonas Salk, artist Ben Shahn, religious leader Mordecai Kaplan, and actors Paul Muni and Edward G. Robinson. The building's stunning acoustics showed off the voices of renowned cantors. Among the congregation's rabbis, Avroham Aharon Yudelovitch, who served from 1918 to 1930, was a Talmudic scholar whose opinions were sought in newspapers both Jewish and secular. All in all, the grand yet serene beauty of the sanctuary and its services gave a sense of pride and self-worth to all who came, regardless of their status or level of religious observance.

In 1924, however, restrictive immigration laws drastically cut the flow of new Jewish immigrants, and those already here left the tenements for other neighborhoods. Within another couple of decades, the Jewish presence had mostly vanished from the Lower East Side, and by the 1960s only a few dozen regulars were attending services at the once-crowded synagogue. The majestic sanctuary, which seats some 700, was no longer needed and was sealed closed. And even though Sabbath services continued to be held in the basement chapel, by the 1970s the building itself was in danger, with an unstable roof on the brink of collapse and an interior stairway that actually did.

Among the synagogue's early supporters was Gratz, who has been crucially involved throughout the renovation. (She now holds the official title of founder and president emeritus of the museum's board.) Though brought up in a secular Jewish household, she says that the moment she walked inside, "I felt the ghosts of my heritage. This is one of three or four historical sites that tell in a nutshell the whole story of the Lower East Side and Jewish immigration. I felt that if we ­didn't save this building, we'd have to reinvent it in Disneyland fashion."

Gratz spearheaded preservation and fundraising efforts to rescue the structure. But persuading people to contribute, she says, "was a very long row to hoe. The feeling was, the Jewish Lower East Side is no more. Why save a synagogue in Chinatown?" Her answer: because of its important place not only in Jewish history but also in urban, New York, and American history. "There are so many levels of significance here—cultural, economic, religious, artistic, as well as in terms of preservation, conservation, and architecture," she says. It took time ("this was not considered a big-ticket item" compared with other philanthropic causes, Gratz adds), but persisting, she got the message out. The project ultimately received grants from every level of government, numerous private foundations, the National Trust, and more than 18,000 individual donors, although the slow pace of funding and the cost of restoring an ornate building in such poor shape delayed the project's completion.

The keywords guiding the restoration have been authenticity and sustainability, emphasize architects Walter Sedovic and Jill Gotthelf of Walter Sedovic Architects. "Our goal was to bring this back not as a newborn baby but as a healthy 120-year-old man," says Gotthelf, who wrote the original master plan (which was so thorough that it was followed throughout) in 1990. For her, as for Sedovic, that has meant presenting the building as it would look had it been cared for rather than neglected, a preserved building in the true sense of the word.

"Authenticity is becoming more and more rare in preservation and conservation projects," Gotthelf observes. "There is a tendency to want places that look new, to restore them so it seems like you're walking into pristine buildings, in some cases even more polished than when they first opened." By contrast, she continues, "for us, authenticity meant not erasing the history but showing this building was used by people."

A prime example is the visible undulations in the pine floorboards—patterns of wear formed by the traditional practice of swaying to and fro while standing for prayer. Rather than replace or smooth out the boards, workers left the waves as testimony to the thousands who worshipped here through the decades. Also left in place was a "mistake" in the decorative painting in one of the pendentives, the triangular sections of wall below the domes. Gotthelf explains: "Instead of having a floral center like all the others, there's one that has a little heart. One of the artisans was leaving a sign for someone he loved so that whenever they looked up, they could see that."

Yet another opportunity to both restore and retain an original effect is visible in the sparkling stars painted behind the holy ark and in the domes above the women's gallery. (In Orthodox tradition, men and women sit separately; here the women's place was upstairs, the men's downstairs.) Some of these had been painted in gold leaf, others in a less expensive bronze powder known as Dutch gold. Because the bronze powder tarnishes but gold leaf does not, as years passed the Dutch gold stars had appeared to shine less brightly, or lie more distant, than others. To maintain that impression, the restoration used two different types of gold leaf to retouch where needed. EverGreene Painting Studios restored the synagogue's painted surfaces.

In some cases, though, staying authentic required asking, authentic to which decorative scheme—the gray and taupe interior of 1887, for example, or the redecorations from 1894 or 1918? After analyzing the different layers of paint, the team settled on 1918's elaborate scheme, with its star-filled skies, floral stenciling, trompe l'oeil murals of curtained windows, and faux-marble columns. Not only would that require the least amount of work to restore, it also represented what the building looked like after being wired for electric lights (in 1907). Following that logic, the chandeliers and other light fixtures also have been restored to that era.

Throughout the restoration, workers turned to craft techniques contemporary to the era in which the building was erected. For instance, the wooden benches, though worn and pockmarked from use, were not stripped of their finish but rather "freshened"—a long-honored technique in which a finish (in this case shellac, a natural product derived from the lac insect) is softened, spread, and redistributed. Yet, sustainable as that technique is, it's seldom used anymore. The reason, Gotthelf explains, is that modern synthetic finishes cannot be chemically reamalgamated; they need to be sanded and reapplied altogether.

If these techniques sound "green," that's as it should be, says Sedovic. "Any act of preservation is of itself an act of sustainability," he points out. Moreover, the original builders of the synagogue were themselves masters of sustainability, making the most of natural lighting with skylights and windows, for instance, and using long-enduring natural materials common to that era.

Similarly, salvaged wood from the collapsed stairway on the north side of the synagogue was put in service to restore the wood stair on the building's opposite side. "Our philosophy was we would not waste things; we would have the mindset that the original builders here did, to use and reuse what we have," says Gotthelf. That included fitting an elevator, for accessibility, into the shaft left empty by that same collapsed stairway. It also meant using recycled blue jeans as material for insulating the attic.

And so it went throughout the restoration. Workers from the Gil Studio, led by Ray Clagnan, recovered about 80 percent of the 250 panels that make up the 67 original stained-glass windows—removing decades of grime, repairing the brittle lead frames, and replicating damaged pieces only where necessary. Sunlight once more shines through the windows, illuminating their beauty and allowing viewers, whether standing inside the sanctuary or in front of the building, to appreciate their intricate geometry anew.

In restoring the monumental brass chandelier and other light fixtures, Dawn Ladd, head of Aurora Lampworks, sought to reuse original brass parts and glass shades wherever possible. If exterior bricks needed to be replaced, matching bricks salvaged from another site were used. Some of the external mortar joints had deteriorated to the consistency of sand, says ­Gotthelf, "as if the building were standing by memory." In addition to being repointed and cleaned, the facade was restored with the replacement of its faux terra-cotta finials. To meet modern safety codes while retaining a sense of authenticity, the architects devised a way to open the skylight to purge smoke, in case of fire. And to keep from enlarging the building's footprint, workers dug down beneath the original foundation to create new space for air-conditioning, heating, electrical systems, restrooms, and a kitchen for the congregation. Basement space was expanded to accommodate a museum gift shop and enlarged space for services.

Bonnie Dimun, the executive director of the Museum at Eldridge Street, anticipates up to 75,000 visitors per year, considerably more than the 12,000 who had annually toured the restoration while still a work in progress. New attractions include the Gural-Rabinowitz Family History Center and the Limud Discovery Center, both housed in the expanded and revamped basement space. Each of these focuses a slightly different lens on the intersecting stories of the Lower East Side, the Jewish journey in America, and the area's multicultural mix. In addition, upstairs in the women's gallery, not only will you gain a grand overview of the main sanctuary, you'll also find the Lise and Jeffrey Wilks Gallery, whose opening exhibition is on the synagogue and its restoration.

This may be a museum, but it's also a living space, true to its original purpose as well as its history. That combined resonance of past, present, and future imbued the celebratory atmosphere of the Dec. 2 reopening with a fervor that you could actually hear in the voice of retired cantor Max Fuchs, who as an apprentice back in 1948 led high holiday services in this very sanctuary. Shehecheyanu, v'kimonu, v'higiyanu lazman hazeh, he intoned, his vigorous and vital lilt conveying the meaning of the Hebrew words: giving thanks, in joy and gratitude, for having reached this season. And the sanctuary itself seemed to echo, Amen.

Walking tour of the Lower East Side

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