On December 2, 2007, the long-derelict Eldridge Street Synagogue, in New York’s Lower East Side, reopened to the public as a museum, after the completion of a two-decade, 19-million-dollar renovation program.
Today the Museum at Eldridge Street is in the heart of Manhattan’s ever-expanding Chinatown, but when it was first built, in 1887, it was in the center of the densely populated neighborhood that was home to what was becoming one of the world’s largest Jewish populations.
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By 1910, the Lower East Side had some half-million Jewish residents, and an estimated 60 synagogues or shtiebels (prayer houses). Eldridge Street, however, was the city’s first purpose-built shul for Eastern European Jews. In the context of the poverty and crowding of the district, its size and grandeur were truly impressive – “otherworldly” is the term that comes up repeatedly.
The structure, at 12 Eldridge St., between Division and Canal Streets, just blocks from the Manhattan Bridge, was built -- at an original cost of $92,000 -- to serve as the home of Kahal Adath Jeshurun, an Ashkenazi congregation that was formed in the mid-1880s by the merger of two older synagogues.
Its designers were Peter and Francis William Herter, architect-brothers, non-Jews, recently arrived from Germany, who combined Gothic, Romanesque and Moorish Revival elements in their plan.
While the exterior is majestic, the main sanctuary within is stunning, with 70-foot-high (21-meter) vaulted ceilings, elaborate brass chandeliers, stained-glass rose windows, and what New York Times critic Edward Rothstein described as “fantastical trompe l’oeil painting that turns plaster into marble, pine into mahogany and molded decoration into ornate stone.”
Visitors to the museum today, or to its website, which links to a number of articles about the history and design of the site, may learn about the detailed 1913 congregational constitution, which attempted to impose order and decorum on this little corner of the chaotic Lower East Side; about the synagogue’s first cantor, Pinhas Minkowsky, who was lured to New York from Odessa with an unprecedented annual salary of $2,500, but who left in a huff in 1892 when his employers turned down his request for a $500 bonus; and about scores of details related to the original design and to the unanticipated obstacles encountered during the restoration.
Falling into disrepair
Although the end of the wave of Jewish immigration, and the move uptown and beyond of most Jews from the Lower East Side, led to the Eldridge Street Synagogue falling into disuse and disrepair, it never totally stopped functioning as an Orthodox synagogue: To this day, Kahal Adath Jeshurun still convenes on Sabbath and holidays for prayers. But in about 1955, the decaying main sanctuary was closed to public, and use of the building was limited to the beit midrash (study hall) on the lower level.
The effort to restore the structure began in 1971, when the architectural historian Gerard R. Wolfe, who led walking tours of the neighborhood, snuck a peek at the cordoned-off main sanctuary. He was so taken by what he saw that he founded the Friends of the Eldridge Street Synagogue, and added the site to the itinerary of his tours.
In the 1980s, the journalist and preservationist Roberta Brandes Gratz and others began a campaign to acquire landmark status for the building, and to raise the funds to undertake the daunting task of restoration.
In 2010, three years after the building reopened, a new stained-glass window, at the front of the sanctuary, was inaugurated. Designed and fashioned by architect Deborah Gans and artist Kiki Smith, the blue window introduces a decidedly contemporary, but fitting, element to the site.
Today, in addition to daily tours (except on Saturday, when the synagogue reverts to its original purpose), the Museum at Eldridge Street is a venue for concerts, lectures, classes, and ecumenical events intended to draw in the overwhelmingly non-Jewish surrounding neighborhood. Combined with a visit to the Tenement Museum, several blocks to the north, one can get a good sense from Eldridge Street of the rich Jewish world that existed in the area a century ago.