Friday, November 24, 2023

The 1927 Park Avenue Synagogue - 50 East 87th Street


On June 5, 1926, The Reform Advocate began an article saying, "'There are considerably fewer Synagogues in New York today than there were forty years ago, although the number of Jews here has increased greatly,' Dr. Stephen S. Wise, rabbi of the Free Synagogue, said last Sunday at the laying of the cornerstone of the new Park Avenue Synagogue, 50 East Eighty-seventh Street."  Ground for the structure had been broken a year earlier and construction would be completed in 1927.

The congregation had its roots in the immediate neighborhood, having been founded in 1882 as Temple Gates of Hope, known familiarly as the Eighty-Sixth Street Temple.  In 1896 the congregation merged with Congregation Agudat Yesharim, and in 1920 joined with the Seventy-Second Street Temple.  The congregation's name became the Park Avenue Synagogue in 1923.

The architectural firm of Deutsch & Schneider received the commission, with Walter S. Schneider taking the lead.  Although the Gothic style had been avoided in Jewish ecclesiastical architecture for decades because it was so favored in Christian churches, Schneider gave subtle Gothic touches to his Moorish design--like the noticeably pointed main arch.

Faced in cast stone, the facade was dominated by that triple-height arch, within which three entrances stood above a broad stone staircase.  The upper hem of the arch was emblazoned with the inscription that translates to "I Love Your Temple Abode, The Dwelling-Place of Your Glory."  A handsome, blind arcade of engaged columns ran below the gabled roofline.  

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

The magnificent new shul had not come cheaply.  The New York Times reported on September 18, 1926, "The building is being erected at a cost of $280,000, while the land is worth $240,000."  The combined costs would equal about $8.6 million in 2023.   It opened in 1927 with an auditorium capable of accommodating 1,200 worshipers.

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

The seating capacity was insufficient for those wishing to attend the funeral of attorney Maurice Bloch on December 8, 1929.  One of the shul's most prominent members, he had been the Democratic minority leader in the State Assembly.  The Jewish Telegraphic Agency reported, "Before and during the services in the temple, a crowd of several thousand persons stood in the street outside, completely filling Eighty-seventh Street from Madison to Park Avenue.  A detail of 120 patrolmen, besides the regular motorcycle escort, was necessary to marshall [sic] the throng."

The Troy Times said, "Two thousand persons crowded into the Park Avenue Synagogue and thousands more, unable to gain entrance, stood reverently in the streets outside."  The New York Evening Post added, "Governor Roosevelt, former Governor Alfred E. Smith, Mayor Walker, Senator Robert F. Wagner and Acting Governor Herbert H. Lehman were among the honorary pallbearers at the funeral."  The eulogy was delivered by Rabbi Stephen Wise, who had also been a close friend of Bloch.

It was most likely after much discussion that the congregation changed from Reform Judaism to Conservative in the early Depression years.  It was a response to the shul's merger with other congregations composed of many Eastern European Jews.

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

On May 27, 1934, Senator Royal S. Copeland addressed Jewish war veterans here.  The New York Sun said he, "appealed to them to enlist in the battle that the police are making to exterminate the 'traitors of the government which has given them the protection of its laws.'"  At the time, another threat was brewing across the ocean.

That threat had become exceedingly clear by November 19, 1937 when The New York Sun reported, "Dr. Joachim Prinz, former Berlin rabbi, who fled Germany last year, will be the guest speaker at the 8:15 o'clock service tonight at the Park Avenue Synagogue...The subject of his talk will be 'Why Hitler Is Not Overthrown.'"

The horrors of the Nazis left little trace of what had been thriving Jewish communities.  Following World War II, British Jews discovered sacred relics in the ruins of synagogues--Torah scrolls, ceremonial objects, and prayer books, for example.  Edward F. Bergman, in his 2001 The Spiritual Traveler, writes:

At the front of the sanctuary of Park Avenue Synagogue, a case holds Torah scroll Number 375, written by a scribe at the end of the eighteenth century and treasured at the synagogue in Horazodvice, Czechoslovakia, until the synagogue was destroyed and its members killed in 1942.  A tablet beneath the scroll quotes Deuteronomy 25:17, "Remember what Amalek did unto thee..."  Amalek harried the Jews as they left Egypt under Moses, and he represents all evil men.

With the war's end, the congregation turned to happier things.  In 1942 Cantor David J. Putterman established an annual tradition of highlighting works by contemporary composers.  
On March 3, 1946, for instance, The New York Sun reported, "Cantor David J. Putterman will present a Service of Liturgical Music by Contemporary Composers at the Park Avenue Synagogue next Friday." 

The following year, on April 28, 1945, The New York Sun announced, "Cantor David J. Putterman will present new compositions by thirteen contemporary composers" on May 11; and on April 29, 1947, The New York Times reported, "Nine composers have written works especially for the fifth annual Sabbath eve service of liturgical music by contemporary composers that will be presented on Friday night by the Park Avenue Synagogue."  The article noted, "Cantor David J. Putterman will be in charge of the program, which will be performed by the synagogue choir and the Hebrew Art Singers."  Over the years composers like Leonard Bernstein, Morton Gould, Darius Milhaud and Lukas Foss wrote music for services here.

Dr. Milton Steinberg had been rabbi of the Park Avenue Synagogue since 1933.  The scholar was the author of A Partisan Guide to the Jewish Problem, As a Driven Leaf (a philosophical novel), The Making of a Modern Jew, and Basic Judaism.  He was, as well, a member of the editorial board of The Reconstructionist, and contributed articles on Jewish problems and issues to various periodicals.  He died on March 20, 1950 at the age of 46.

An addition to the synagogue was erected in Rabbi Steinberg's memory, known as the Milton Steinberg House.  Designed by Kelly & Gruzen, it featured an extraordinary stained glass wall designed by Adolph Gottlieb.  On August 30, 1954, syndicated columnist Meyer Berger wrote, "The report last week that artisans were putting up an all-stained-glass facade at the Steinberg house, 50 East Eighty-seventh Street, led some people to wonder where stained-glass workers were to be found in mid-twentieth-century New York."  The article said Otto W. Heinigke had been working with stained glass since 1890.  The building was opened on September 19, 1954, its completed facade consisting of 91 Gottlieb-designed panels.

Steinberg House.  from the collection of the Gottlieb Foundation

The 75th anniversary of the congregation was celebrated on March 31, 1957 in an striking display of religious unity.  The New York Times reported, "Protestants, Roman Catholics and Jews paid tribute yesterday to the Park Avenue synagogue, 50 East Eighty-seventh Street."  The article continued, "Delegations from neighboring Presbyterian, Baptist, Unitarian and Catholic churches were scattered through the congregation, as well as representatives from several New York synagogues."

On May 28, 1965, former President Dwight D. Eisenhower worshiped with the congregation on the 20th anniversary of the liberation of concentration camps by troops under his command.  

A moving address was made here on December 5, 1994 when the Rev. Jesse Jackson condemned what he termed the "repressive" California anti-immigrant initiative.  The state's Proposition 187 denied education to children of undocumented immigrants.  Newsday reported, "He told the crowd that if it was wrong for America to turn its back on a boatload of Jewish refugees in 1939, and to round up 120,000 Japanese-Americans during World War II, and to turn back Haitian boat people in 1991, 'then it is racist and wrong to deprive Latino children of an education and health service in 1994.'"

Regrettably, in 1980 the unique Milton Steinberg House was dismantled.  Some of the panels were preserved and reused as clerestory windows in the replacement structure.

According to Edward F. Bergman, the Park Avenue Synagogue "is New York's largest and one of its leading Conservative synagogues."  

photographs by the author
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1 comment:

  1. This is just east along 87th Street from where my mother used to live. Thanks for the interesting history!