Saturday, June 18, 2011

The 1908 Synagogue at 242 East 7th Street

After the failed Hungarian Revolution led by Louis Kossuth in 1848-1849 the small Hungarian population of New York City began to swell.  According to Robert Perlman in his “Bridging Three Worlds: Hungarian-Jewish Americans, 1848-1914,” of the thousands of Hungarian immigrants streaming into Manhattan in the 1880s, “it is reasonable to think that half or more of them were Jews.”

The Hungarians settled in the Lower East Side along with a large number of German and Polish immigrants. Here numerous Jewish congregations developed, including the 1883 Beth Hamidrash Hagodol Anshe Ungarn – or the Great House of Study of the People of Hungary.

By 1908 the congregation had moved several times as its numbers grew. That year it would contract architects Gross & Kleinberger to design a new synagogue on the site of a three-story brick home at 242 East 7th Street recently purchased from Lena Zeichner.

photo by Alice Lum

Rather than demolish the existing structure totally, the front and rear walls were removed and the building was extended by four feet at the front and 32 feet to the rear.

After the late 19th Century when synagogue architecture in America tended towards elaborate Moorish or Byzantine edifices with keyhole arches and minarets; a quieter, more classic style was taking hold. 

Scattered throughout Manhattan extremely similar attractive but unassuming "vernacular" synagogues began being built in the early 20th Century.  This would be one of them.

The new synagogue, which cost $10,000, would reflect the success of the congregation. The architects produced a Neo-classic and refined façade clad in stone. With understated elegance, it rose two stories above a high basement. Four flat pilasters on the first floor supported a cornice on which the second story – essentially a classic Greek temple unto itself – rested.

Photo by Alice Lum

Above the polished wooden double entrance doors was a stained glass fanlight.

The handsome paneled double entrance doors are topped by a large fanlight backed with "slag" glass -- photo by Alice Lum

At the time of the synagogue’s completion, Hungarians were migrating northward to the Yorkville area to escape the crowded conditions downtown. Two years later there were 22,000 Hungarians on the Lower East Side while 17,000 were now living in Yorkville. As the century progressed and more and more Hungarians dispersed, the old synagogues were abandoned or destroyed.

The congregation at 242 East 7th Street, however, stood pat.

Not until 1975 did the members finally give up. That year the last service was held and the doors were locked for good. The beautiful stone synagogue stood quiet and abandoned for nine years.

photo by Alice Lum

In 1984 a developer purchased the building. All traces of the 1908 interiors were destroyed and the structure underwent a three-year renovation into what a real estate agent would later term “five intimate residences.”
Sleek apartments occupy the space where Jewish Hungarian immigrants once worshipped -- photo

In his “From Abyssinian to Zion: A Guide to Manhattan’s Houses of Worship,” David W. Dunlap said “There are apartment buzzers at the front door, but the exquisite Neoclassical building at 242 East 7th Street is unmistakably a synagogue.”

Although Gross & Kleinberger’s Edwardian interiors have been replaced by sleek, modern spaces, the façade is unchanged --a refined reminder of the days when the voices of this neighborhood rang out in Polish and German and Hungarian.

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