Volume 79, Number 43 | March 31 - April 6, 2010
West and East Village, Chelsea, Soho, Noho, Little Italy, Chinatown and Lower East Side, Since 1933


Above, a preliminary drawing of the window, by Kiki Smith and Deborah Gans, showing it inserted into its frame. (Photoshop by Wiss, Janney, Elstner.) Below, a mock-up of the stained-glass window, by Kiki Smith and Deborah Gans. (Photograph courtesy of The Gil Studio.)

Starry window
to be museum’s
crowning glory

By Bonnie Rosenstock 

When visitors enter the building at 12 Eldridge St. a frequently asked question — in all seriousness and bafflement — is: “What’s a synagogue doing in Chinatown?”

The answer to that question, said Amy Stein-Milford, deputy director of the Museum at Eldridge Street, reaches back to the 19th-century history of the Lower East Side, and fast-forwards to the synagogue’s recently completed restoration project. The latest feature of that restoration is a dramatic, new, star-studded, stained-glass panel, slated to be installed and unveiled in the late summer or early fall.

The new east window, collaboratively designed by artist Kiki Smith and architect Deborah Gans, is the culmination of the synagogue’s 20-year, $20 million overhaul, with the funds raised thanks to 18,000 public and private benefactors.

Bonnie Dimun, the museum’s executive director, said of the two women who won the commission, “After a long and considered selection process, we chose their design, not just for its beauty, but because it was so respectful of what was already there. Smith and Gans intuitively created a design that is both strikingly contemporary but surprisingly in keeping with the 19th-century interior’s history, aesthetics and enduring spiritual quality.”

The original window was destroyed in the hurricane of 1938 and replaced by a clear, glass-block, tablet-shaped design in 1944-’45, and there is no record of what it looked like. So Smith and Gans took their cue from the recurrent theme of stars, which appears in the building’s 68 stained-glass windows and in the carved wood, pillars, brass fixtures and faux-marble painted and stenciled walls and ceilings.

“Sitting in the sanctuary dazzled by all the layers of color and ornament, Kiki and I knew that the one thing the synagogue did not need was yet another motif,” remarked Gans during a March 7 tour and preview for visitors, board members and invited guests.

“So,” she continued, “we thought to extend this veil of stars — the veil of heaven that intercedes between us and divine light — into the literal opening for the sky, and to have them play with actual light. Amy told us that there were curtains that hung in front of the women’s balcony, so it also plays with those feminine themes,” Gans added.

The new window is 16 feet in diameter — within which is a 2-foot, central, six-pointed Star of David — and will occupy virtually the entire top half of the building’s eastern wall. The golden stars will play against a blue firmament, re-creating the blue-and-gold pattern on the trompe-l’oeil windows on each side of the ark — the cupboard that houses the Torah scrolls — and the existing western ceiling dome.

“Stars have figured in Kiki’s personal iconography for a long time,” noted Gans. “But she decided to strictly use the stars on the walls [as the model] rather than her own. She observed that the five-pointed star is the American flag and it could very well represent the pride the congregation felt in establishing its American cultural presence.”

Stein-Milford concurred, noting that the flag holders in the balcony displayed the American flag, indicating the congregation’s pride in being both Jews in America and Americans.

The new laminated technology of flash glass, combined with traditional stained-glass technique, makes it possible to etch the yellow stars into a blue field without any outline or leading to detract from the stars.

“What traditionally would be black lines of lead can now be cracks of light,” explained Gans. “At night the stars will catch and reflect the light.”

The Eldridge Street Synagogue was built in 1887 as the first great house of worship constructed from the ground up by Eastern European immigrants. Eighty percent of American Jews originate from this ancestry, said Stein-Milford.

“The synagogue reflected their hopes and aspirations,” she said. “It was a refuge for prayer, light and beauty, a dramatic counterpoint to their everyday dark tenement and workplace reality.”

The synagogue received National Historic Landmark status in 1996, and the restoration of the breathtaking, neo-Moorish interior garnered nearly every major preservation award in 2008. The glass blocks will be resettled on the lower-level family history wall, where they can be etched as a memorial to a loved one.

The Museum at Eldridge Street, 12 Eldridge St., between Canal and Division Sts. Guided tours, Sunday to Thursday, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Concerts, lectures, festivals and school programs are offered throughout the year. The 10th Annual Egg Rolls and Egg Creams Festival & Block Party, Sun., June 6, 12 p.m. to 4 p.m., free, celebrating the cultural contributions and traditions of the Chinese and Eastern European Jewish communities. For more information call 212-219-0302 or visit www.eldridgestreet.org .

 

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