Monday, August 22, 2022

The Lost Madison Avenue Temple - Madison Ave and 65th Street


from The Decorator & Furnisher, October 1885 (copyright expired)

Congregation B'nai Jeshurun ("Children of Jeshurun"), incorporated in 1884, was the second oldest Jewish congregation in New York City.  In 1864 it erected a synagogue on West 34th Street, between Broadway and Seventh Avenue, deemed by the New Amsterdam Gazette later, "undoubtedly the largest Hebrew place of worship in New York."  While it owned the structure, it leased the land on which it stood and in 1884, with that lease expiring, the congregation chose to move.  On April 30, 1885 the New Amsterdam Gazette explained:

The growth of the city, however, of late years necessitated the congregation to look for another place of worship more suitable for the now remarkably increased and wealthy congregation, and more convenient to the large number of members residing uptown.

The New York Times reported on March 4, 1884, "The congregation B'nai Jeshurun has purchased from Newman Cowen a piece of property on the west side of Madison-avenue, about 25 feet south of Sixty-fifth-street, being about 75 feet from on the avenue, for $75,000."  The equivalent price the congregation paid for the vacant lot would be more than $2 million today.

Things quickly moved forward and two weeks later, on March 21, The New York Times reported that plans for the new structure had been filed.  The firm of Schwarzman & Buchman received the commission, and a recently-hired architect was given the project.  The New Amsterdam Gazette wrote, "The plan of the edifice, which was selected by competition, is the work of Don Rafael Guastavino, a Spanish architect of great ability."

Trained in Barcelona, Guastavino had arrived in New York only three years earlier.  He would become known not only for his often exotic designs based in Moorish and Byzantine traditions, but for his Guastavino Arch, an incredibly strong structural arch veneered with interlocking tiles.

The New York Times reported, "The front of the synagogue will be of brick and built according to the Byzantine style.  In the basement will be a large school-room.  The synagogue will seat nearly 1,100 persons and will cost about $65,000."  Although the New Amsterdam Gazette called the congregation, "now one of the wealthiest in New York," the trustees made a cost savings move.  "The old synagogue...will be torn down and the stone will be used in the erection of the new building," said The New York Times.

New Amsterdam Gazette, April 30, 1885 (copyright expired)

Construction proceeded quickly.  In reporting on the cornerstone laying on August 7, 1884, The New York Times remarked, "The edifice is already far advanced toward completion, and will be dedicated about Dec. 1 next.  The  basement rooms will, however, be ready for occupancy after the the October festivals."

The "fine new building," as described by The New York Times was dedicated on March 25, 1885.  The Real Estate Record & Guide said, "There was a large and fashionable gathering, and the ceremony was of an impressive character."  The New York Times remarked, "The interior of the new synagogue was modeled after the first synagogue erected in Europe, at Toledo, Spain, and is in the style of the Spanish Renaissance.  The front, which is of Philadelphia brick and stone, is of the byzantine style, with Moorish combinations and a portico in the Moorish style."

The New Amsterdam Gazette added, "Care has been taken for an abundance of light; the side aisles receiving light through large side windows and semi-circular tops, while the main aisle is lighted through the immense circular front and dome windows, and a beautiful line of half-circular ones located on each side of the frieze of the center aisle.  All the windows are glazed with fancy cathedral glass."  The stained glass windows were fabricated by Lampert & Co.

The New Amsterdam Gazette continued:

The grand organ, certainly one of the finest in the city, was built by George Jardine & Son, the builders of the Cathedral organ.  The most prominent feature of the building, which cannot fail to attract the attention of every visitor, is the exquisitely carved and beautifully decorated desk designed for the reader of the Books of Moses, situated in the rear of the halls.  It is constructed in the form of a balcony.

The movement of the synagogue away from Midtown created a problem.  The congregation's cemetery was located on 32nd Street, between Sixth and Seventh Avenues.  On February 23, 1887, The New York Times reported, "The old plot, which is only 40 by 100 feet, has become so desecrated by the refuse and rubbish which is thrown there that it has been thought advisable to remove the bodies."  The congregation met the day after the article to approve moving the bodies to Cypress Hills, Brooklyn.

The rabbi of B'nai Jeshurun was Rev. Henry S. Jacobs, a "fluent and graceful speaker," according to The Menorah, who was "gifted with a remarkably pleasant voice, and is one of the best orators among the rabbis of the city."  King's Handbook of New York said that under him, the congregation held "conservatively to the old Mosaic standards...paying little regard to the changeful spirit of the nineteenth century."

He was succeeded in April 1893 by the Hungarian-born Rev. Dr. Stephen Seymour Wise, an outspoken critic of Tammany Hall who was described by Tammany leader Richard Croker as a "narrow old man."

from King's Notable New Yorkers, 1899 (copyright expired)

Rev. Wise remained seven years, preaching his last sermon on June 3, 1900.  The New-York Tribune commented, "He took charge of the Madison Avenue Synagogue in April, 1893, and leaves it for a poorer cure in Portland, Ore."

In November that year, the Rev. Joseph M. Asher of Cambridge University in England, was invited to "preach on trial."  Newman Cowen, the president of the congregation, told the New-York Tribune "that Mr. Asher is expected to be the rabbi of the congregation."  And, indeed, he was installed on December 22, 1900.  The comments of the Rev. Dr. Gustav Gottheil of the Temple Emanue-El, who conducted the installation, may have hinted at problems to come.  The New-York Tribune reported, "Dr. Gottheil emphasized the necessity of toleration and magnanimity.  He also called to the incoming rabbi's notice that he would find ideas more advanced here than where he formerly labored."

Despite the warning, Asher could not accept new ways of Congregation B'nai Jeshurun.  On February 15, 1908 the New-York Tribune reported, "Its ritual was not sufficiently orthodox for the new rabbi and he resigned and took charge of [a] smaller but less modern congregation."  

The congregation struggled to find a long-term leader.  Asher's successor, Dr. Benjamin A. Tintner, resigned in December 1910.  He was replaced by Dr. Judah L. Magnes, who immediately began a series of far-reaching changes.  The Sun reported on December 19, 1911 that "he announced that it was his intention to 'further Judaism as it has been handed down to us by the Jewish people.'"  The article said, "One of Dr. Magnes's first acts was to shut down the organ and abolish the mixed choir.  The women singers were discharged and a choir of male voices was substituted."

from King's Handbook of New York (copyright expired)

Dr. Magnes's insistence on strict orthodoxy caused a rift within the congregation.  A member told a reporter from The Sun, "The enthusiasm with which the new plan was received seems to have waned and the young people, upon whom we depend, are anxious to have the music restored and the services made attractive."  On December 20, The New York Times added, "Strong differences of opinion, it was learned yesterday, have arisen in the congregation of B'nai Jeshurun Synagogue at Madison Avenue and Sixty-fifth Street as to the desirability of certain change in the direction of orthodoxy."

Dr. Judah Magnes resigned in January 1912, and was be replaced by Dr. Barnet Elzas.  The congregation's focus soon turned from infighting over religious ritual to its physical location.   In 1915 it decided to relocate to the opposite side of Central Park, and on January 15, 1916 the Record & Guide reported, "The Congregation B'nai Jeshurun has been granted permission by to court to sell its synagogue the Alliance Realty Company."

The New York Times, on May 3, reported, "Madison Avenue is about to lose one of its most imposing religious structures in the demolition within a few weeks of the synagogue of the Congregation B'Nai Jesurun."  The final services had been held the previous Saturday and the congregation had arranged temporary quarters while its new synagogue at 257 West 88th Street was being constructed.

As it turned out, Raphael Guastavino's magnificent Byzantine-inspired structure was not demolished, but otherwise obliterated by the architectural firm of Rouse & Goldstone.  The firm remodeled it into a neo-Federal commercial building that bore no resemblance to its former self.

from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York

The building, at 746 Madison Avenue, survives, albeit heavily altered. has no authorization to reuse the content of this blog

1 comment:

  1. Spouse and I had an uncle and aunt in Brooklyn, so we tried to visit them as often as possible from 1970-2000. Their shules were very pleasant and functional, but your photos in Manhattan were spectacular.