West and East Village, Chelsea, Soho, Noho, Little Italy, Chinatown and Lower East Side, Since 1933
Volume 77, Number 4 | June 27 - July 3, 2007

Villager photos by Jefferson Siegel

Seen from a scaffold balcony built for the restoration, Judyta Rozycka painted the Eldridge Street Synagogue’s roof dome, top left; Boris Gusit painted a spandrel along a high wall, lower right; and Svetlana Dobrushkina painted an arch, rear right.

Peeling back paint layers, restoring a place of prayers

By Lucas Mann

On Eldridge St., between Canal and Division Sts., every sign on every storefront, from the hair salon to the video store, has Chinese characters on it, except for one. The Eldridge Street Synagogue rises gracefully above the Lower East Side, the way that it did when it was first completed in 1887. Atop four columns that line its peaked roof are perched four shining Stars of David, catching the sun and reminding pedestrians of a different immigrant community, a different time, and in many ways, a different city.

“The grandeur of this building was a symbol to the world that ‘We’ve made it,’” said Amy Milford, deputy director of the Eldridge Street Project. “This was the first great house of worship built by Eastern European Jews, many of whom were coming from places where they’d faced persecution.”

It is no accident that the Eldridge Street Synagogue is still so visually arresting or that each pane of stained glass looks so regal. The building was a statement of both identity and pride in a Lower East Side that, at the turn of the 20th century, was “maybe the most densely populated place in the world,” as Milford put it.

Milford and her partners at the Eldridge Street Project are restoring the synagogue to let that piece of New York’s and Jewish America’s history live on.

To conduct that restoration with as much integrity as possible has been a long and meticulous process. Restoration began 18 years ago and is just now nearing completion. One look around the work site exhibits just how little the project was willing to compromise.

On a visit last week, the stained-glass windows were in the process of being put back into their former places in the synagogue. Every single pane of glass was the original, not replaced but saved and restored in a local glass shop. The elaborately designed paint job on the synagogue’s interior that will greet each visitor is not a replication, but the original design — uncovered and refurbished from beneath layers of paint — that would have greeted the synagogue’s early congregations.

“Actually, it’s not the original paint job,” architect Walter Sedovic pointed out. “The very first paint scheme, from the 1880s, was a dark coral color that worked very well with the gas lighting that the building originally had. When the congregation first got electric lighting in the early 1900s, they were so impressed and proud with that lighting that they changed the color scheme to a lighter marble to better pick up the light. That is the color you see today because, after all, the building will have electricity.”

Attention to these sort of small details reflects an unwavering commitment to preserving the history of the building and expressing that history in a contemporary environment.

“On the first floor, we are keeping a row of bare bulbs, which are unnecessary and unremarkable to the modern eye,” Milford noted. “But we’re keeping them there to recognize the wonder that the congregation felt when they first got these light bulbs.”

Standing under the synagogue’s domed ceiling on a temporary scaffolding, where artists are bringing back to life the old paint job at the apex of the building’s interior, Milford couldn’t help but express her excitement, high up in this unique construction site.

“I get to be in this little secret place in New York City,” she said. Around her, some more of the pie-shaped, stained-glass windows that made up the skylight system were being reinstalled. On the balcony, the original pews were being stored, waiting to be returned to their proper places throughout the sanctuary. Instead of a large construction crew with nail guns and a concrete-mixing truck, there were workers armed only with paintbrushes, gently trying to reclaim an aesthetic that has been fading for more than a century.

“My partner, Jill Gotthelf, prepared the master plan for the restoration 18 years ago and we have not deviated at all from the original philosophy,” architect Sedovic declared proudly. “It took a lot of discussion, a lot of convincing and a lot of bullheadedness — but as every phase is completed, they’re outstanding.”

One important part of the plan was to make sure that the main worship space, with its shining, wide-open sense of majesty, remained as it would have been the first time worshipers craned their necks up toward the skylight. From the overall effect of the skylight system, to the smallest star painted on the walls, everything feels authentic. Sedovic and Milford pointed out a place of personal significance for them — almost too small to notice — on a column. Deviating from a design that centered around a spade shape, there was one tiny heart painted, where a spade should have been.

“One of the original painters must have been in love when he was working on the synagogue,” Sedovic explained. “We are going to keep that little heart right where it was.”

Of course, in a renovation geared toward serving a community in 2007, there must be some concessions to modernization. The building, after all, will be, “a place for people to connect with the history of Eastern European Jews in America: A museum entity,” as Milford said. That modern museum identity means that the building will be equipped with full Internet capacity, as well as learning stations set up near the street-level entrance, where school classes and others can use interactive computer programs to explore the history of the Lower East Side. Surely, the original congregation did not come to the synagogue to Google “Judaism,” but the Eldridge Street Synagogue is a now a place of learning, more than it is a place of worship.

That does not mean that the religious use of the building is gone, however.

“The congregation of this synagogue has not missed a Sabbath service in 120 years,” noted Roberta Brandes Gratz, a journalist and preservationist who was one of the first people to rally for the synagogue’s renovation back in 1982. As she spoke, she sat in the small room that the congregation has been using for services during the renovation.

The new worship space is being built on the street level, under the original, enormous sanctuary, next to, but separated from, the interactive learning centers and what will be a gift shop.

“We are overwhelmed with anticipation,” said Tova Bookson, a leading member of the congregation. “Hopefully, it will be so beautiful. And even now, although we’re in the smaller room, we still get to practice.” Bookson is not just a member of the congregation, but also a member of the neighborhood. Like the rest of her congregation, she lives within walking distance of the synagogue.

“Anyone is welcome in our synagogue,” she said. “We want as many people as possible to come.”

The synagogue is not being restored to hold anywhere near the more than 1,000 people that it would routinely accommodate on high holidays a century ago. But the ability to have a comfortable space into which to invite people is a welcome one for a congregation that had fallen on hard times in recent years.

“When I entered this space [in 1982], there was a congregation with literally no money and water leaking through the roof,” Gratz remembered. “Four-fifths of American Jews came through the Lower East Side and this was the most significant site of the time. I felt the ghosts of my history in here.”

Those ghosts that compelled Gratz to get involved must have been what compelled the project’s many backers to donate their money to an otherwise penniless undertaking.

“We have more than 18,000 supporters from all over the country,” Sedovic said. “Over $6 million of the $14 million we have raised so far has come from the city. It was gratifying for them to recognize that this was an important resource for the city.”

One of the city officials who backed the Eldridge Street Project was Manhattan Borough President Scott Stringer, whose office has contributed $250,000 to the project in the past year.

“The Eldridge Street Synagogue is one of the Lower East Side’s most important architectural, spiritual and historical treasures,” said Carmen Boon, a Stringer spokesperson. “Borough President Stringer has been proud to support the synagogue’s restoration project.”

As the synagogue of old comes to life around them, the project members look forward to its completion, slated for Dec. 2, on the building’s 120th anniversary. The project has been exhaustive. Five-thousand square feet of additional basement space has been excavated by hand, built to house the modern heating and electrical systems, just so that the building wouldn’t extend its outer presence on the neighborhood.

They have high hopes for what their efforts will achieve.

“We are well positioned to be the standout Jewish heritage program in the country,” Gratz said with finality.

It is impossible to know if the final product will have that kind of effect — and the project is still facing problems. They need about $2 million more to complete the restoration the way they planned it, although they are confident they will get the funds. But, to look around the synagogue, it is easy to see one undeniable achievement: A building and its history are being brought back to life. Eldridge St. has always been a reflection of the immigrant identity of New York City and, come December, there will be a solid brick assurance that a vital part of that history isn’t forgotten.

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