This post is about a tour (almost exactly a month before Passover) of the historic Eldridge St Synagogue (now called the MUSEUM AT ELDRIDGE STREET) on March 23rd at 11:30 am (meet-up at 11:15am) and a Lower East Side walking tour. Lunch will be planned for afterwards. WHY YOU WANT TO GO: The nationally landmarked Eldridge St Synagogue is historically and architecturally significant in its own right but, perhaps more important, its story intertwines with that of New York from the late 1800’s to the present – including its current restoration and rebirth. Members, go to the Reservations / Payment page of the website to secure your spot !
When you look at pictures of the Lower East Side from the late 1800’s it comes as a shock to see how crowded the streets are. – Kids playing, wash hanging out, vendors, carts with animals – just people going about their daily business cheek-by-jowl in the city’s streets. This comes as no surprise when you realize that between 1880 and 1924, two and a half million Eastern European Jews came to the United States and 75 percent of them settled initially on the Lower East Side. While Jews were the dominant ethnic group, other recent arrivals from other countries settled there also. Many of us are at an age that our grandparents (or great grandparents) could well have been a part of that diaspora and part of the great white flight from cities in the 1950’s and 60’s – when their goal in the climbing up the rungs of the American success ladder was to GET OUT of the Lower East Side or other immigrant enclaves. Fast forward to the present when many a grandparent shakes his or her head when their grandchildren go back to that place – and pay exorbitant rents to boot!
On September 4th, 1887, just in time for the Jewish High Holidays, the Eldridge St Synagogue opened its doors. It was a huge achievement for the community in that it was the first time in America that Eastern European Jews had built a brand new synagogue in this country. Designed by Peter and Francis William Herter (although they were brothers named Herter, they were unrelated to the famous Herter Bros. furniture and design company from this same period), the Eldridge St Synagogue is decoratively rich with dozens of Stars of David embellishing the façade. That’s because the building itself was a proud declaration by the community of both their religious freedom and also their economic aspirations. Although the Lower East Side at the time was best known for its sweatshop factories and sub-standard living conditions in over-crowded, sweltering tenements, the grandeur and scale of the Moorish-themed synagogue provided an inspiring respite from reality.
For fifty years, until the 1920’s, the Eldridge St. Synagogue thrived. Thousands attended its religious services and police were hired for crowd control. The synagogue was more than a house of worship; it was a vital community center which looked after its congregation in an era before social services were established. But as its members succeeded in their quest to leave the Lower East Side, as immigration tapered off (partially the result of quotas) and the Great Depression affected the fortunes of the congregation, the once-robust synagogue on Eldridge St declined. By the 1930’s, the synagogue was used less and less and by the 1950’s it had suffered serious deterioration, including crumbling walls and a leaky roof. The magnificent main sanctuary was abandoned and was not used from 1955 to 1980.
In 1986, a non-sectarian group calling themselves the Eldridge St. Project was founded with the goal of restoring the building and re-fashioning it with an educational and cultural agenda. In 2007, after 20 years of restoration work and fundraising, the synagogue was re-opened as THE MUSEUM AT ELDRIDGE STREET and is considered a marvel of architectural restoration. The sanctuary’s sumptuous Victorian quirkiness was revived incorporating stenciling, decorative painting, marbleizing and gilding.
The only 21st Century addition to this otherwise uber-accurate and painstaking restoration is the East Window which is a somewhat modern, contemporary design. While a rose window is more typically associated with Christian houses of worship, the Herter brothers nonetheless had one as part of the original 1887 Eldridge St design. After years of deterioration, in the 1940’s whatever was the original window had been replaced with glass blocks. There were no records of the design of the original East Window and there was some discussion about maintaining the glass blocks as a reminder of Eldridge Street’s recent, difficult, past. But in 2009, the Museum’s Board chose to replace the East Window with a contemporary design by Kiki Smith and Deborah Gans.
The new window is a gorgeous, fitting addition to Eldridge Street and a beautiful capstone to this period in its history. Modern laminate technology is used in the window with more than 1,200 pieces of colored antique Lamberts glass joined together with silicone atop a plate glass base. Not a single piece of lead holds the window together.As Deborah Gans explained, “What would have been lines of lead are now lines of light.”
The MUSEUM AT ELDRIDGE STREET is a very special part of NYC history and it is important and moving to experience it.