A Synagogue in Chinatown

Signaling Perserverance And Hope

In 1887, Eldridge Street below Canal was the heart of the Jewish Lower East Side. Modest tenements lined the narrow streets; pushcarts teemed with pickles and fruits sold in open air; storefront signs bore Hebrew and Yiddish words. Today, Chinese characters have replaced the Hebrew. And shining glass towers are beginning to encroach among the historic rowhouses. Recent years have seen immense change take root in the Lower East Side. But one thing has remained – the Eldridge Street Synagogue still towers proudly over the neighborhood. Built in a resplendent Moorish Revival style, this building has survived, and thrived, due to the sheer will of its stewards. Upon opening in 1887, it was the country’s first house of worship built by Eastern European Jewish immigrants. It signaled the arrival of prosperous Jewish New Yorkers – new Americans both embracing their new home and evoking traditions from the homeland. And just as immigrants adapted to their new reality, so too has the site at Eldridge Street. Today, the National Historic Landmark synagogue deals less in torahs than in tours. As a nonsectarian Museum, visitors from all walks of life are welcome. Tourists and New Yorkers alike step through the elaborate historic doors for an immersive experience like no other. The stunning architecture, rich social history, and restoration story offer myriad resources for exploration and learning. Amidst unmatched old-world beauty visitors learn about immigrant life, historic preservation, and the evolving culture of the Lower East Side.

 

GAINING NEW FREEDOMS, NEW HARDSHIPS

A continued legacy for the Museum’s building was not always guaranteed. The original congregation flourished through the first decades of the 20th century. From countries like Russia, Poland, and Hungary, they were part of a now-famous immigration wave that began in the mid-19th century. Jewish immigrants often settled in the Lower East Side and transformed the neighborhood into the largest Jewish population on the planet. The congregation that would eventually pray in the Eldridge Street Synagogue didn’t form until they were on the Lower East Side together. Previously, lack of space and money would have dictated that congregations stay as small as ten people. But finally, in America, their new synagogue could hold numbers they would never have dreamt of in the old countries. They enjoyed a newfound religious and social freedom. Although most congregants would have had little money and jobs with long, strenuous hours, they were finally permitted to practice their traditions proudly and joyously. The congregation was becoming an active part of American society, too – the building project required they take out a mortgage. So although the endeavor was centered on their faith as observant Jews, the synagogue also made them players in the very American, very New York City, tradition of real estate ownership.

But changing American policies in the 1920s and ‘30s slowed immigration to the Lower East Side. As the century wore on, the Jewish character of the old neighborhood began to disappear. The Eldridge Street Synagogue’s Orthodox congregation, whose faith stipulates that they walk to Sabbath services, began to lose members to shuls in other neighborhoods. They had paid off their mortgage by the 1940s (a fact that prompted newspaper ads and a neighborhood-wide celebration at the synagogue), so making rent was, luckily, not a problem they faced. Rather, the congregation’s dwindling funds could not keep apace of the needed maintenance. Such a massive, ornate building required much more care and resources than the small congregation could provide.

But they would not abandon their spiritual home. The congregation’s solution? Shrink their use of the space to a small, manageable area. So by the 1950s, the congregation had locked the doors to the elaborate main sanctuary. A smaller, more modest space on a lower level of the building held all synagogue activities. In the ensuing three decades, the Lower East Side lost more and more of its old Jewish character. Soot built up on the synagogue’s cream brick facade, kosher deli storefronts disappeared, but the congregation still met every Friday night at 12 Eldridge Street. They prayed on the lower level of the building while all along, one floor up, their majestic 19th-century sanctuary languished in exile.

RESCUED FROM THE BRINK

That is, until 1971. That’s the year that Gerard Wolfe, architecture professor and historic preservationist, struck up a friendship with the building caretaker. Historians at the time were concerned with the rapid loss of Jewish culture in the neighborhood and Wolfe was researching a book about what remained. He had heard a legend that a grand shul on Eldridge Street had been sealed for decades. Was it true? If so, what time capsule existed behind locked doors? With permission granted, Wolfe took a crowbar to the warped doors of the main sanctuary. The seal had been broken. Wolfe stepped inside the cavernous sanctuary, and what he found was at once haunting, inspiring, and perilous. On the verge of collapse, the historic sanctuary had been ravaged by nature. Inches of dust covered elaborate brass fixtures; stained glass fragments littered the pine floors; birds darted through holes in the 50-foot ceiling. Yet through all the schmutz, the sanctuary was awe-inspiring. Simultaneously preserved and decaying, the space was unlike anything else. Here, untouched by human hands, was evidence of thriving, joyous Jewish life in the early 20th century – a time when new immigrants could practice religious pride publicly for perhaps the first time in their lives.

Wolfe and other preservationists began to lead small, sporadic tours through the sanctuary. But as the years wore on, the mere structural integrity of the building was in question. If they didn’t take decisive action immediately, they knew this treasure would be lost forever. This was especially apparent to preservationist Roberta Brandes Gratz. Gratz, with a small team of other co-conspirators, formed the Eldridge Street Project. Their goal at the time seemed impossible – to bring the crumbling synagogue back from the brink.

Fundraising began. Public awareness campaigns were launched. And slowly, the Project was able to complete stabilization efforts. Next, restoration needs were identified. A leading decorative arts firm analyzed paint layers, constructed a timeline of the sanctuary’s decorative paint, and restored the handpainting that blanketed every inch of the walls and ceiling. A stained glass studio examined the numerous panels lining the sanctuary walls. They were able to salvage 80% of the original glass pieces in the historic windows – the remaining 20% were fabricated to the same specifications and installed amidst to their historic counterparts. As restoration slowly moved forward on the physical aspects of the space, Project staff meticulously constructed a social history of the congregation and their use of the building. They combed through historic board minutes (written in Yiddish!), catalogued artifacts found abandoned in the basement, and conducted oral history interviews with descendants.

It took 20 years, and $20 million. But in 2007, the Eldridge Street Project had officially completed a full restoration of the historic sanctuary. At a joyous rededication ceremony, an entire community celebrated together. Descendants of the original congregation joined with preservationists and historians to celebrate this amazing feat. It was yet another day at 12 Eldridge that many would never have dreamt could become reality.

A DYNAMIC SPACE

The 2007 rededication ushered in yet another chapter in this building’s life. The Eldridge Street Project officially became the Museum at Eldridge Street. Rather than allow the building to serve as a static reminder of architectural opulence and Jewish life, the Museum envisioned a dynamic, modern space. Today, hourly tours welcome visitors from across the globe. Using historic images and the very building itself, docents construct an entire world that examines what life was like for early congregants. Thousands of school groups stream in the doors each year, learning about the patterns in the decorative art, immigrant life, and Jewish traditions. The Museum welcomes Jews from across the globe as often as people stepping into a synagogue for the first time in their lives.

PRESERVATION QUESTIONS, ARTISTIC ANSWERS

The building’s architecture itself is dynamic, too. At the completion of restoration, there was one final element that had not been stored to 19th century grandeur. A massive stained glass window on the sanctuary’s eastern wall had been renovated in the mid-20th century with four columns of simple glass blocks. The struggling congregation had made this repair to what we can assume was a traditional rose window.  (A similar traditional rose window sits on the western wall of the building.) This utilitarian design, although not historic, is what remained in the space even once the project was rededicated as a museum.

The eastern window prompted a tricky historic preservation question – what to do with an element of a historic space that has changed over time? There are no known records of the original east window design. So any return to a historic design would be, at best, an approximation. Prevailing preservation theory does not encourage this guesswork. Honesty is important in restorations, and fabricating an element to appear historic can be seen as dishonestly creating a historic motif.

The Museum wanted a solution that would be as grand as the surrounding space, but allow the full story of the building, including times of struggle, to be told. So rather than return to the old, the Museum looked to the future. In 2010, the contemporary artist Kiki Smith was hired to design an entirely new stained glass piece for the eastern wall. Smith, along with architect Deborah Gans, seamlessly blended the sanctuary’s historic motifs with contemporary design and fabrication. Where typical stained glass utilizes dark, heavy lead in between panes, this new piece was held together with clear silicone. The result is a massive piece of art that holds over 1,200 individual pieces of glass and manages to look both formidable and feather-light simultaneously.

Now, visitors gasp as they train their eyes upward at the monumental window. The story of the window’s damage, repair, and rebirth is now an integral piece of the building’s history. It allows docents and visitors to have discussions about contemporary art, historic spaces, and preservation theory. And the awesome beauty of the piece is right at home in the stunning historic sanctuary.

KIKI SMITH RETURNS TO ELDRIDGE

Now, once again the Museum at Eldridge Street has opened another chapter in this site’s long history. A small gallery space on the lower level has been showing small exhibitions since 2016. But in April 2018, the Museum debuted its first building-wide exhibition. Fittingly, the exhibition features work hand-picked for the building by Kiki Smith. Titled Below the Horizon, the exhibition is Smith’s response to the building, its decorative motifs, and historical significance. Pieces are displayed throughout the historic building in exact locations chosen by the artist. And the pieces converse beautifully with their surroundings. Colorful wooden sculptures line the elaborately painted walls of the historic sanctuary, evoking forms of nature like birds, cats, and hearts. The women’s balcony holds an especially meaningful piece – 50 feet in the air, a sculpted chair hangs from the painted ceiling. Emerging from the chair’s form is a bird in flight, evoking an earlier time when birds called the sanctuary their home.