Monday, March 28, 2022

The Lost Unity Synagogue - 130-132 West 79th Street


photograph by Wurts Bros. from The Architect, November 1928.

The synagogue of Congregation Peni-El, incorporated in 1906, stood at 527 West 147th Street.  Two decades after its formation, as the character of Harlem underwent change, its members were moving to the Upper West Side.  In response, in May 1927, the congregation acquired vintage structures on West 79th Street, including the quirky Bonheur Studio buildings.  The following month, architect Walter S. Schneider filed plans for a new synagogue.  In July, Peni-El merged with Mt. Zion Congregation, which was also located in Harlem.  The combination resulted in Unity Synagogue.  

On August 13, 1927, the New York Evening Post reported that the structure would include "an auditorium seating 2,000 people, with a combination platform and stage, which can be utilized for lectures, cinema productions and theatrical performances."  Walter S. Schneider's design was a medley of styles.  "The temple is to be a combination of Persian, Byzantine and Coptic architectural forms and ornamentation," said the article.

The façade would be clad in buff and brown stone, its design dominated by a massive stained glass window above the entrance.  Schneider originally planned to crown the full-height, tower-like piers on either side with "large ornamental dome[s]...mounted by large copper minarets, to be illuminated at night by flood lights."  That plan was later scaled down.

On May 13, 1928, as construction neared completion, around 1,000 people filed into the auditorium for the consecration of the cornerstone.  Among the speakers was Attorney General Albert Ottinger, who commented on the "striking beauty" of the new temple.  The New York Times reported, "The synagogue, he said, was more than a monument of stone and proved that the Jew was devoted to the highest ideals of mankind."

Construction was completed in September 1928.  On September 7 The New York Times reported, "The edifice cost more than $800,000 and when the parish house is completed it will bring the total cost to about $1,000,000."  The total outlay would equal about 15 times that much today.

The New York Evening Post described the auditorium as being "surmounted by [a] large ornamental dome, pierced with decorative grilles in ornamental plaster."  The platform of the altar and ark were "of marble and mosaic."  The journalist said, "Practically the entire illumination of the auditorium will be from concealed sources."  The building included a small memorial chapel for smaller services, a "spacious study for the ministers," a meeting room and the superintendent's living quarters.  In the basement was a Sunday school for up to 400 children and the kitchen.

photo by Wurts Bros. from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York.

Among the speakers at the opening on September 7, 1928 was Mayor James Walker.  He said in part, "Some people are trampling on each other in an effort to get to Heaven.  they act as if they thought there were not enough seats there for everybody."  But, he insisted, "Religion will be preached here, and understanding, not strife and hate.  No word of bigotry will come from this pulpit and no sensationalism and scandal will be heard here."

The formal dedication of the structure would not come for another seven months, in April 1929.  Later that year the congregation received an impressive gift.  On November 1 the New York Evening Post reported, "At a special good-will service to be held this evening in Unity Synagogue...America's Good-Will Union will present an American flag donated by John D. Rockefeller, Jr.  Mayor Walker will deliver the principal address."

photo by Wurts Bros. from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York

The enormous cost of Unity Synagogue's opulent temple was its undoing.  Six months after the official dedication, the Stock Market crashed, initiating the Great Depression.  Unity Synagogue was forced to place sell building at auction in September 1930.  It was purchased by Mount Neboh Congregation, which re-dedicated it in October.  Founded in 1907, like Peni-El and Mt. Zion, it had worshiped in Harlem, on West 150 Street.

On May 17, 1935 Mount Neboh Congregation installed its new rabbi, Abraham L. Feinberg.  The new leader had a colorful past.  Feinberg had been assistant rabbi at Temple Israel until 1930, when he resigned to pursue an operatic career.  He received a scholarship to the Julliard School of Music, and then studied at the American Conservatory in Paris.  Upon returning to America, he performed under the name of Anthony Frome, making his radio debut in 1932.  He gave his last radio performance on April 7, 1935, one month before returning to religious life with Mount Neboh Congregation.

Feinberg, as Anthony Frome, posed for a publicity shot.  original source unknown

Rabbi Feinberg was fiery and opinionated, The New York Times decades later saying, "He was always ready to march, lend his name or send a telegram if there was a protest for disarmament or for a treaty on a nuclear test ban, or against racism in South Africa, radical injustice in America and United States policy in Vietnam."  But Vietnam and nuclear tests were far in the future.  A more imminent threat was rising in Europe.

On May 20, 1938, he warned his congregation "if Japan absorbs China, the entire political and economic balance of the world will tip toward tyranny."  He recommended that the United States should help China both financially and with the sale of arms.  "If china wins," he said, "a bulwark will be established against the 'holy alliance' of Japan, Germany and Italy, the onward course of dictatorship will be checked, and new hope will be inspired."

Later that year, in November, he made a tour on the Pacific Coast to raise funds for the aid of German Jews.  He telegraphed his sermons to Mount Neboh Congregation where they were read from the pulpit.  His words, read on November 18, 1938, were clear concerning the urgency of the situation.  He said in part:

The Christian outcry against Nazi brutality strengthens more than ever the ages-old Jewish faith in the final triumph of the best in man over the beast in man...While Hitler makes hatred the basic policy of a powerful Government and inflames one race against another, the world of religion has been reconciled and closes its ranks together for the preservation of human decency.

The 36-year-old rabbi left Mount Neboh Congregation in December that year, after accepting an offer from Temple Emanuel in Denver, Colorado.  His resignation ended a short but distinctive period in the congregation's history.

Rabbi Feinberg had initiated a tradition, however, that continued under his successor, Rabbi Samuel M. Segal.  That was the annual memorial service for fallen policemen.  Each year a procession of 300 policemen marched from the 68th Street Police Station to Mount Neboh Congregation.  Rabbi Segal shared Feinberg's passionate feelings about Nazism, and took advantage of the memorial service on November 24, 1940 to decry Hitler.

"This is not a Jewish war," he told the assembled policemen.  "The Jewish people do not seek war."  The New York Times reported, "Dr. Segal declared that the tragedy of Hitler's rise to world power was that the West did not realize his war was not only against the Jews, but against democracy itself."

Rabbi Samuel M. Segal stepped down in 1961.  Over the next decade the membership waned and the once-prosperous congregation developed financial problems.  In 1979 the building was sold to The Corporation of Seventh Day Adventists.  The group resold it just two years later, to developer Alexander Edelman.

On January 12, 1982 the Landmarks Preservation Commission designated the building an individual landmark, calling it "one of the important synagogue buildings on Manhattan's Upper West Side" and praising Schneider's design as "distinctive."

But exactly one year to the day later, the LPC voted to allow Edelman to demolish the landmarked structure.  The New York Times explained the designation "had caused the owner a financial hardship that could be relieved only by allowing the demolition of the building."  Ironically, a spokesperson for the Landmarks Preservation Commission, Dorothy Marie Miner, stressed that the landmark status had not been rescinded.  "It will be, until the end, a designated landmark."  The commission's chairman, Kent L. Barwick, added, "It is unfortunate, but ultimately only fair, that we now issue this notice to proceed."

In place of Walter S. Schneider's "distinctive" and "important" synagogue structure Edelman erected a 19-story apartment building, The Austin.

no permission to reuse the content of this blog has been granted to

No comments:

Post a Comment