Saturday, September 4, 2010

The 1897 Congregation Shearith Israel Synagogue - Central Park West

photograph Gryffindor

In 1654, with both the Spanish and Portuguese Inquisitions raging in Europe, a group of 23 Spanish and Portuguese Jews fled to America by way of Brazil, establishing themselves in lower Manhattan.  For nearly a century they worshipped in rented spaces until, in 1730, they converted an obsolete gristmill into a synagogue, creating the first American synagogue. 

As the congregation grew and the city expanded northward, so did Congregation Shearith Israel, moving three times to new houses of worship.  By the mid-1890s, the congregation had grown large and wealthy.  The members selected a site at the corner of Central Park West and 70th Street for their next shul--a developing neighborhood filling with impressive homes.  Congregation Shearith Israel purchased five lots for $140,000.

P. L. Sperr photographed the building on March 4, 1929 from the collection of the New York Public Library

Architects Arnold W. Brunner and Thomas Tryon were hired to design the new synagogue.  Although fashion in Jewish religious architecture had tended to reflect Near Eastern styles–with onion domes and Moorish arches, for instance–the architects took a different approach.

Archeological excavations in Israel near the Sea of Galilee at the time had uncovered classical ruins of a Greco-Roman period synagogue.  The discovery sparked interest in Jewish history predating the Moorish period.  Arnold Brunner referred to the concept as the “sanction of antiquity.”

The architects produced a dramatic Roman temple, completed in 1897, with four gigantic Corinthian columns supporting a cornice and ambitious pediment.  A grand flight of stone steps leads to the entrance.  Its new synagogue told the community that Congregation Shearith Israel had come a long way since 1654.

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

Tiffany Studios produced the soaring stained glass windows, and the interior walls were clad in various types of marble.  Two millstones from the colonial period gristmill synagogue on Mill Street were installed at the entrance and the reader’s desk from that same synagogue was brought in.

photos via

One room, called The Small Synagogue, is furnished in the Georgian style, including some of the furniture original the 1730 Mill Street building.

Over a century after the building's completion, Congregation Shearith Israel continues its venerable history in New York within its monumental classical synagogue.

No comments:

Post a Comment