Friday, July 1, 2011

The Quiet Little Synagogue at 53 Charles Street

photo by Alice Lum
 Since early in the 19th Century, sleepy Charles Street ran on a slight diagonal from Greenwich Lane (later to be renamed Greenwich Avenue) to the Hudson River. But oddly enough, the north side of the block between West 4th Street and Bleecker Street was called Van Ness Place, named after the grand Van Nest estate that once stood here.

This small strip, which had its own house numbers, eventually was corrected to Van Nest Place; while the south side remained Charles Street with even-numbered addresses.

It was here that the seemingly nomadic Congregation Darech Amuno (variously spelled Darech Emunah and Darech Amino) finally settled at No. 2 Van Nest Place. Established in 1838, the Dutch congregation had moved throughout the 19th Century from Greene Street, to 99 Sixth Avenue, to 7 Seventh Avenue, to 278 Bleecker Street, to a synagogue on West 4th Street, before purchasing the 1868 house on quiet Van Nest Place in 1912.
photo by Alice Lum

Rather than starting from scratch, architects Sommerfeld & Steckler altered the existing structure. The five-year renovation gutted the townhouse. What resulted was a three-story classically-inspired structure that hugged the property line. The nearly-flat fronted Roman design included a classical pediment and brick pilasters supporting stone cornices between each floor. The colorful stained glass of the dominating rose window, hefty fanlight over the entrance and six flanking windows highlighted the cream-colored brick trimmed in limestone.
The little synagogue at 2 Van Nest Place in 1929 -- photo NYPL Collection

A steep set of stone steps into the recessed entrance prevented loss of valuable interior space; allowing the facade to extend fully to the sidewalk. A strikingly similar synagogue was constructed simultaneously on Stanton Street for Congregation B’nai Joseph Anshe Brzezan, including the triangular pediment, vigorous cornices and brick pilasters.

The Orthodox congregation was especially active in providing free burials for needy Jews in the Mokom Sholom Cemetery in Jamaica, Queens; however for the most part the synagogue served its worshippers for decades with a low-profile; melding in with the brownstone residences of the block relatively unnoticed.
Three years after this photo was taken, Van Nest Place would become Charles Street -- photo NYPL Collection

On June 7, 1936 the New York Times reported that “The nomenclature Van Nest Place will be eliminated; Charles Street incorporating same. These structures will become 59 to 51 Charles Street; No. 53 of which is the Synagogue of the Congregation Darech-Amino, organized in 1838.”

A century later the congregation remains in its handsome little synagogue on the side street of Greenwich Village. Unexpectedly, it has become best known for its unlikely American roots music in the narrow basement social room.
photo by Alice Lum
In 2001 The Village Voice gave the congregation the “Best Bluegrass in a Synagogue” award saying “Following kabala class, ‘pleasantly Orthodox’ synagogue Congregation Darech Amuno offers congregants, neighbors, and passersby hours of riveting, energetic, upbeat American roots music. A troupe of talented musicians commands this narrow, ornate chapel, steered by mandolin virtuoso Andy Statman. Everyone strains forward in their pew, absorbed in the improvised bursts of frenetic, impassioned strumming. Masterminding the event is Herman, the synagogue's president and cook, who will fix you up some watermelon and bourbon during intermission as he recounts stories about the rabbi's legendary amulet-writing powers.”

The magazine added, “Post-intermission, stick around for a rousing encore of ‘Oy Susanna!’”

The Stratman Trio has appeared here hundreds of times over the years.

The arcane little synagogue sits quietly off the corner of Bleecker Street, minding its own business and affording a delightful discovery for the casual explorer of Greenwich Village.

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