Wednesday, June 1, 2011

The 1887 Eldridge Street Synagogue

photo by Alice Lum

When brothers Peter and Francis Herter founded the architectural firm of Herter Brothers (not to be confused with the interior decorating and furniture firm of the same name), they had already been well established in their native Germany. Upon his arrival in New York in 1884 The New York Times called Peter “the richest builder on the banks of the Rhine.”

The Herters set about designing tenement buildings for the waves of immigrants settling on the Lower East Side. A major departure came when they were awarded the commission to design a grand synagogue at No. 12 Eldridge Street.

By the middle of the 1880s, thousands of poor Eastern European Jews were flocking to the neighborhood. The former Head Rabbi of St. Petersburg was one of the founders of the Congregation K’hal Adath Jeshuran and in 1886 he helped plan for a synagogue in which this new population could worship.

In addition to providing a house of worship, the leaders wanted to show the rest of the city that the oft-maligned Jews of the Lower East Side, too, could produce something monumental and beautiful; something in line with the new St. Patrick’s Cathedral or the imposing Gothic churches of Fifth Avenue.

Historians Henry Stolzman and Daniel Stolzman would later point out “The construction of the Eldridge Strreet Synagogue signaled – both to non-Jews, and to the German Jews who were embarrassed by the poverty and ‘Old World’ manner of the new immigrants—that Eastern European Jews, like their predecessors, could also thrive in America.”

Opened just before the High Holy Days in 1887, the synagogue was a show-stopper. The Herters free-handedly melded Gothic, Moorish and Romanesque styles – four horseshoe-arched entrances were reflected by a gallery of similar windows directly above. A mammoth Gothic Rose window dominated the fa├žade and a series of minaret-like towers rose above the roofline.

The highly-carved oak lecture is fitted with a brass handrail -- photo
Inside the space soared 70 feet upwards to colorful stenciled ceilings. The poor congregants, accustomed to dingy tenements and sweatshops, were surrounded by sumptuous brass lighting fixtures, 68 stained glass windows and carved wood. The velvet-lined ark, which could hold 24 Torah scrolls, was constructed in Italy from solid walnut and inlaid with mosaics.

The barrel-vaulted sanctuary with it brass main chandelier holding 75 bulbs -- photo
The officers of the congregation established rules of decorum and ushers were appointed to enforce them. Upon signing the contract for the sale of seats, the congregants acknowledged that they “must adhere strickly to the rules for maintaining peace and order for the service.” Fines were levied for those interrupting the service by loud talking, late arrival, spitting on the floor and “unclean language.”

In order to enforce the spitting rule, dozens of spittoons were scattered about.

Eight months after its opening, the synagogue was the scene of an impressive memorial service for the German Emperor Frederick III. The temple was filled with mourners and the service was conducted in both English and German as Jews, decades away from the Holocaust, grieved the Emperor’s passing.

The synagogue was used not only as a place of worship, but it anchored the Jewish immigrant community – providing food for the poor, small financial loans, care for the sick, and information on finding employment or housing. Turn of the century Jews, however, were constantly faced with discrimination.
photo by Alice Lum

At a meeting in the synagogue on April 22, 1900 intended to protest immorality and vice in the neighborhood, visiting speaker Professor Adler said “I was talking with the Chief of Police recently and he whispered this in my ear: ‘Do you know who is responsible for the bad moral condition of the city? It’s just you Jews.’”

Through it all the Eldridge Street Synagogue thrived. On Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur it was necessary to post police on the street to control the throngs who flocked to the temple. By the 1920s the congregation was composed of over 300 families.

The vice and crime in the neighborhood’s that was so strongly derided by the congregation leaders in 1900 continued into the 20th Century. In 1930 thieves broke into the cellar of the synagogue, making off with antique relics and ceremonial silver items valued at over $2,000.

By the middle of the century, however, the synagogue fell on hard times. The Jewish population of the Lower East Side shrank as young members moved away to more affluent neighborhoods and the elderly died. By the late 1950s the beautiful sanctuary was sealed off and congregants conducted services in the basement.

The main synagogue sat unused for 24 years and, with no maintenance, the hand-stenciled walls and ceilings flaked and water seeped into the plaster. The degraded rear rose window was be replaced with glass blocks, rotting interior staircases were no longer safe to use, and pigeons roosted in the balconies.
The remarkable, restored trompe d oeil murals of cloth hangings can be seen on either side of the ark -- photo
The not-for-profit Eldridge Street Project was formed to save the structure. A non-sectarian group, it initiated a 20-year, $18.5 million restoration. With no vintage photographs to document what the rear rose window looked like, a design by Kiki Smith and architect Deborah Gans was chosen to replace the glass block patchwork. The designers drew on the star motif of the stenciled walls and ceilings to create an artwork of spiraling stars.

The replacement rose window by Kiki Smith and Deborah Gans -- photo
When it was re-opened in 2007, the Eldridge Street Synagogue began a new dual life as a house of worship and a museum. The Museum at Eldridge Street offers tours, concerts, lectures, and school programs.

The synagogue, now restored to its former glory, was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1996.

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