Monday, May 27, 2019

The Lost Congregation Ohab Zedek Synagogue - 18-22 West 116th Street


The American Architect and Building News, September 28, 1907 (copyright expired)

The governor of Nieuw Amsterdam, Peter Stuyvesant, had a strong and simple view on religion:  his faith was right and all others were wrong.  A member of the Dutch Reformed Church, in 1655 he forbade citizens to "admit, lodge or entertain...any one of the heretical and abominable sect called the Quakers."  The following year he refused Lutherans the right to organize a church.  So it was not surprising that when the first Jews landed in New York in 1654 they were met with severe discrimination.

Nevertheless, religious tolerance in the New World won out.  Between 1812 and 1846 the Jewish population in New York would swell from 400 to 10,000 and by the start of the Civil War there would be more than two dozen synagogues in the city.  Another congregation was established in 1873, the First Hungarian Congregation Ohab Zedek.

Originally worshiping in a synagogue at No. 70 Columbia Street, it moved into the former shul of the Congregation Anshe Chesed on Norfolk Street in 1886.   Then twenty years later, on April 10, 1906, the New-York Tribune reported that the congregation would be moving to the newly-fashionable Harlem district.  It had purchased the 70-foot wide property at Nos. 18 to 22 West 116th Street from Robert C. Dorsett for $69,500--a pricey $2 million today.

Within the month architects Hedman & Schoen had filed plans for a "two-story brick and concrete synagogue."  The project cost was $60,000, nearly doubling the cost of the entire project.  Jewish congregations grappled with architectural styles.  The Gothic Revival and Greek Revival styles were closely associated with Christian churches.  So synagogue architects often turned to Moorish Revival, which hearkened to the pre-Inquisition era when Jews enjoyed relative freedom in Spain.

Architects Axel Hedman and Eugene Schoen, however, went another direction.  The New-York Tribune reported that the synagogue "is to be of the Tudor style, in brick and terra cotta, with an elaborate facade having a great central gable window with ornamental mullions and a cornice with two cupolas.  There are to be three front entrances, the central one having a staircase."

By fall construction had progressed far enough that the cornerstone could be laid.  The congregation gave the honors to one of its most prominent and wealthiest members, banker Jacob H. Schiff.  But first there was a major problem to overcome--the structure was being constructed by the Schaeffer-Carroll Construction Company, an all union firm.  And Schiff was not a union member.

Mr. Carroll explained to a reporter "Every man on the job would strike if a non-union man put a trowel into mortar on this job.  Mr. Schiff has got to join the union and I'll be present to swear him in."  And so it was.  The millionaire financier joined the labor union and the ceremony could go on.

It was an impressive affair.  The New York Herald, on November 5, reported that "Thirty-five hundred members of the First Hungarian Congregation yesterday saw Jacob H. Schiff, the well-known head of the firm of Kuhn, Loeb, & Co. bankers, sworn in as a union man before he was permitted to mix the mortar used in the laying of the cornerstone of their three hundred thousand dollar synagogue."

The newspaper was a bit ambitious in its numbers.  The New-York Tribune estimated the number of members present at 300 and, in fact, while costly, the total price of the synagogue would be about half of the Herald's estimate.   Congregation Ohab Zedek had been a bit optimistic, as well, in sending invitations.  A letter from the White House was read, in which President Theodore Roosevelt offered his regrets at not being able to attend.   Nevertheless the ceremony was imposing with the bank of the Hebrew Orphan Asylum playing Hebrew hymns, aided by a chorus from among the congregation.  

The building was completed in 1907.  Its red brick neo-Tudor facade did not flaunt; but emanated an air of dignity.  A large arched stained glass window dominated the design, flanked by two lancet-like windows with prominent cornices.  Above each were open-work Stars of David.
The American Architect & Building News illustrated the complex brick and terra cotta details in this photo.  The gentleman in the picture might be L. Herman, then president of the congregation.  The American Architect and Building News, September 28, 1907 (copyright expired)
The congregation would often lead the city's Jews in philanthropic causes, perhaps none so urgent as the situation in Palestine in 1915.   World War I was taking a merciless toll on Jews, although no shots had been fired there.  Turkish forces brought with them contagious diseases, and starvation was rampant. 

Boris Schatz, founder of the Bezalel School of Art in Jerusalem, wrote, “All of the disease, the cholera, typhus fever, dysentery, malaria and the other angels of destruction have been forgotten due to the starvation … The synagogues have removed the silver crowns and ornaments from the Torah scrolls to sell them by weight – from their silver they have made whip handles…The Arabs wore our prayer shawls on their heads; the shopkeepers used our sacred books to package their goods…Mothers sold themselves to save their children from death."

A cable message to Rabbi Philip Klein arrived on April 4, 1915 that said 100,000 Jews in the Holy Land were starving.  "Financial conditions are desperate and help is urgently requested.  Please ask the American liberal press to spread this appear throughout the country."  Rabbi Klein and Congregation Ohab Zedek spearheaded the New York fund drive, and they did so in an ingenious way.

The former shul on Norfolk Street is pictured in the inset.  memorial pamphlet to Dr. and Mrs. Philip Klein, 1926 (copyright expired)
The congregation's cantor, Josef Rosenblatt, was gifted with a unrivaled singing voice.  Born near Kiev, Russian, he had begun singing at the age of 9 and later trained in Austria where he was known as "The Wonder Child" because of his vocal ability.

On April 29, 1917 the New-York Tribune reported that he would give a concert of Hebrew liturgical music "with a choir of forty voices" in the Hippodrome for the benefit of the Jewish War Relief.  It would kick off a nation-wide tour during which he would visit between 30 and 40 large cities.

The cantor turned down a princely offer for his faith.  The American Jewish Chronicle, April 19, 1918 (copyright expired)

The tour reaped large amounts for the relief effort; and had an unexpected result as well.   Sitting in the audience at the Chicago concert on March 15, 1918 was Cleofonte Campanini, general director of the Chicago Grand Opera Company.  He desperately wanted Rosenblatt's golden voice.

After the concert Campanini approached the cantor, known popularly as "Yosele" Rosenblatt, and offered him $1,000 per performance.  It was a celebrity wage--about $16,700 a night in today's dollars.  And Campanini was prepared for any arguments.

Rosenblatt explained to The American Jewish Chronicle a month later, "When I told him that I did not think it proper for me as an orthodox Jew to appear upon the operatic stage, Mr. Campanini said that he would guarantee that I need not remove my beard, nor sing in any performance on either Friday or Saturday, and that he would not ask me to sing any operas that would hurt the feelings of an orthodox Jew."

The singer asked for time to think about it, and in the meantime Campanini considerately sent a letter to Morris Newman, president of Congregation Ohab Zedek, explaining the offer and asking the for his "favorable answer."

That would not come.  Newman's response, written with "the consent of Mr. Rosenblatt," according to The American Jewish Chronicle, said in part "we feel that the Rev. Rosenblatt's sacred position in the synagogue does not permit him to enter the operatic stage."  The trustees, said the letter, had "no objections to his singing at concerts, whether sacred or otherwise."

Foremost among the congregants working for relief efforts was Jacob H. Schiff's son-in-law, Felix M. Warburg.  His indefatigable work resulted in his receiving "the highest honor rabbinical authority has ever conferred on an American Jew," as reported by the New-York Tribune on March 19, 1920.  "It was the degree 'Haber,' or 'Chover,' which had its origin in the Talmudic era, and is given only in recognition of great humanitarian service."  

The honor, bestowed by Rabbis Bernard Drachman and Philip Klein of Congregation Ohab Zedek, recognized his far-reaching achievements in the relief of the Jews of war-devastated Europe.  The rarity of the accolade was evidenced in the article's noting "Sir Moses Montefiore was the last Jew to receive the distinction, it being awarded to him for saving the Jews of Damascus in 1848."  

The following month Rabbi Drachman was back in the newspapers, this time fighting the Federal Government.  Prohibition brought an end to wine, an important element of the Passover and Sabbath rites.  On April 2 he declared, according to the New-York Tribune, that "fermented liquor has been used from 'time immemorial' and that Jews are 'enjoined by their religion' to use it on all religious occasions, including the celebration of the Sabbath."  (The government, by the way, issued an exemption in favor of Jews and Christians in the use of fermented wines for sacramental purposes.)

On February 22, 1925 The New York Times reported that Morris Newman had announced "that the congregation will begin at once the erection of a new synagogue in West Ninety-fifth Street, near Amsterdam Avenue."  But, somewhat confusingly, that did not mean the abandonment of the 116th Street building.  "The new building, it was explained, would not supplant the present synagogue of Ohab Zedek...where services will continued to be held."

The new structure was completed in 1926.  The 116th Street shul, while still owned by Congregation Ohab Zedek, became known as the One Hundred and Sixteenth Street Synagogue, or sometimes the Community Synagogue.  On October 9, 1932, President Herbert Hoover sent a letter that read:

I sent hearty congratulations to the congregation of the One Hundred and Sixteenth Street Synagogue upon their celebration of the 25th [sic] anniversary of its founding, and every good wish for success in continued helpfulness in the field of spiritual inspiration which has always been a major contribution of the Jewish race to the world.

Finally on June 14, 1939 The New York Times reported "The synagogue formerly occupied by the First Hungarian Ohabzedek Congregation, a two-story building at 18-22 West 116th Street, has been sold...to the Baptist Temple of the City of New York."  The article added that the building "will undergo extensive alterations in preparation for occupancy."

The Christian church removed the Stars of David from above the thin stained glass windows.  photo via NYC Department of Records & Information Services
The Christian congregation had apparently been leasing the building for a short time, already.  Four months earlier, on February 15, the New York Age reported "on Sunday morning at the Baptist Temple Church, 20 West 116th Street, the auditorium was filled to capacity to hear the inspiring sermon preached by Rev. Coles, subject 'Stewardship.'"

In the three decades since Congregation Ohab Zedek had erected the building, the Harlem neighborhood had become the epicenter of Manhattan's Black community.  The Baptist Temple Church was founded in 1899 by worshipers who had broken away from Mount Olivet Baptist Church.  The 116th Street church would play an important part in the district's political, social and religions activities.

On October 17, 1953, for instance, the upstate newspaper The Kingston Daily Freeman reported that Rev. L. A. Weaver, pastor of the Progressive Baptist Church, and "messengers" would "leave for New York to attend the annual session of the Empire State Convention at the Baptist Temple Church, 20 West 116th street."  

A devastating fire ravaged the church in 1965.  Without the funds to restore the interior, a false ceiling was erected at the balcony level, closing off the upper space.  The smashed stained glass windows were sealed up.

In the meantime, the Temple continued its work.  The New York Branch of the NAACP established its headquarters in the building and it was here that Mrs. Annie B. Martin, described by the N. Y. Amsterdam News as its "activist president," was unanimously re-elected to a sixth two-year term in December 1988.  She pledged "to help combat growing racial tensions in New York City, and continuing attention to the community problems in education, unemployment and against the narcotics menace."

N. Y. Amsterdam News, October 8, 1988
The New York Times highly-respected architectural columnist David W. Dunlap visited the sanctuary in June 2002.  The pastor, Rev. Anthony W. Mann was looking for financial help to finally restore the space.  Dunlap described looking above the false ceiling.  "This hidden space is amazing in its dimension and decrepitude, stripped to brick, timber and steel columns.  The frames of the Tudor-style arched windows are still evident, but cinder blocks now replace glass."

Despite Rev. Mann's laudable hopes to restore the vintage structure, there was a darker side to his pastorate.  On June 21, 2004 Neil Graves, writing in The New York Post, wrote "In the end, the elderly parishioners of a Harlem church said it was no contest--God scored a TKO victory for them over a bully pastor."  Graves went on to say "Members of the  Baptist Temple Church at 18 W. 116th St. awoke from a nightmare yesterday by reclaiming their church from Rev. Anthony Mann, 44, a former corrections officer who ran the place like Sing Sing, several said."

Scores of members had abandoned the congregation after Mann made "their life in the pews miserable." according to Graves.  "Some even said the younger man challenged them to fistfights and denied them funerals for loved ones."  After resisting efforts to fire him for two years, Mann finally resigned.   During his term in the pulpit membership had fallen to about only 40.

In 2018 the windows were blocked over and weeds sprouted from the entrance pediment.  image via Google Street View

In the 1920's a popular trend had changed the face of ecclesiastic architecture throughout the country; at least for a decade or so.  Congregations demolished their steepled structures to erect "skyscraper churches"--modern apartment or office buildings with ground floor space delegated to the churches.  

On May 9, 2016 Curbed New York announced that the Baptist Temple congregation would be doing just that.  The article said "Plans call for a new 11-story structure to be built on the site at 20 West 116th Street.  The new church will be located on the cellar and first floors of the building."  The decision had been prompted by the Department of Building's citing structural damage.    

Workers began demolition in 2009.  photo by Austin2Harlem
Demolition began in October 2009, but then ground to a halt.  Nine years later, in August 2018, the architectural firm of GF55 Partners released new renderings for the proposed replacement.  On August 29, 2018 New York Yimby advised "No completion date has been announced yet."

rendering by GF55 Partners via newyorkyimby.com
many thanks to reader Doug Wheeler for suggesting this post

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