When Jews migrate across New York, they sow their paths with institutions, and there’s something at once invigorating and sad about what happens to these buildings after the need for them has passed. The Jewish Daily Forward Building has become condos. Half a block away, the Garden Cafeteria, where Isaac Bashevis Singer made his camp, is now a Chinese restaurant. The Jarmulowsky Bank, built in 1895 in the vain hope that fair banking practices and a rusticated limestone façade would reassure skittish immigrants, may soon get recycled into a luxury hotel. Physically, at least, the Eldridge Street Synagogue remains, encircled by Cantonese noodle shops and hipster boutiques, proudly refusing to make way for some more useful and efficient incarnation. It’s still partly a spiritual center—a small congregation comes every Friday night to a modest basement sanctuary—but the most sumptuous part of the building exists as a museum of itself, a splendid relic of a more deprived age.
After a long dotage and an equally drawn-out restoration, its jumble of Gothic tracery, Moorish flourishes, and Victorian flamboyance now looks simultaneously rejuvenated and venerable. Thankfully, the synagogue doesn’t glitter as it must have on the day it opened in 1887. Rather it looks the way it did a century ago, when it was already weathered but newly electrified, the pine floorboards furrowed by years of feet sliding back and forth in the prayerful swaying known as shokeling. The architects, Walter Sedovic and Jill H. Gotthelf, avoided scrubbing away its patina of experience. They didn’t strip the mottled gloss off the wood and start again; they softened and reflowed the old finish, retaining the magnificent antiquity of the paneling. It’s no more authentic to roll time back to 1907 than it would be to choose a day twenty years before, but Sedovic and Gotthelf’s approach has the great virtue of enshrining a narrative, of intimating what it might have felt like to seek a little grandeur here when the Lower East Side was a wriggling mass of people.
It’s hard for us to appreciate how little private space a new immigrant occupied then. Each family member slept jammed up against another, and most worked in whatever corner of the crepuscular living room could be temporarily cleared of babies. Walking down the street was a contact sport. You spent your days touching neighbors, inhaling the mingled body odors of people for whom bathing meant hauling water and heating it on a coal-burning stove. When you went to the outhouse, 100 people knew. In such a medieval world, the Eldridge Street Synagogue was a place of unimaginable splendor. The ceiling arced 70 feet high, stained-glass windows bejeweled the sunlight, the tree-trunk columns were painted in a convincing simulation of the finest Italian marble, and their florid capitals were gilded to do Byzantium proud.
As the Jews’ lot improved, the synagogue’s glory dimmed. By the mid-thirties, the congregation had fanned out to the Bronx, to Brooklyn, and to the Upper West Side, and when a hurricane blew out the east rose window, there was no money to replace the stained glass. The few remaining congregants retreated to the basement, and in 1955 they locked the doors to the main sanctuary and left it to decay in peace. But people kept rediscovering it, and in 1986 the preservationist Roberta Brandes Gratz founded the Eldridge Street Project to renovate the building. By then, termites had devoured one of the two staircases to the women’s gallery, the roof had leaked, and the plaster patterned with vines and views of Jerusalem had flaked away. To prevent any more wrought-iron finials from tumbling off the roof, all of them had been removed.
Today, you would never know. Painted stars glitter once more on cerulean vaults and the flamboyant finials preside over the roofline again. A textbook case of neglect has been reborn as a ravishing illusion of vitality. The physical work complete, the Eldridge Street Project has reconstituted itself as a museum, with displays on Jewish immigrant life and the preservation itself. And there’s the rub. A preservation effort as careful, tasteful, and exhaustive as this only dramatizes the gulf between the culture that brought the building into being and the world in which it has survived the real-estate odds. To plow an old house of worship into a bank branch or a wine bar would be to obliterate another chapter in the city’s story, but to tend it so lovingly is merely to engineer another form of change.
The Eldridge Street Synagogue represented the religious aspirations of Yiddish-speaking Eastern European Jews; the Kaufman Center, on West 67th Street, represents the artistic aspirations of English-speaking assimilated Jews. Designed as a home for the Hebrew Arts School in the gloomy late seventies by Ashok Bhavnani, it had a gimpy, unfinished feel. It’s framed by a cage of concrete beams, half of which Bhavnani left bare, encasing a brick house visible within. The other half was covered with metal panels that looked progressively cheaper with each passing year. Only pigeons, it seemed, could really enjoy the space between the two façades. But while the glorious synagogue crumbled majestically, the ugly little school found itself bustling overtime, with far more tiny fiddlers and earnest new-music ensembles than it was ever intended to accommodate.
Robert A.M. Stern took the challenge of making the center look more like a destination concert hall and less like a trunkful of institutions. He did so with the judicious use of color and deluxe materials. Glass walls along the sidewalk and a lobby painted red create a brilliant stripe at streetside. Inside, a reception counter made of fire-red granite could have been airlifted from an active volcano, and a rippled wall of composite resembles a petrified dune. To anyone who frequented the much-loved little Merkin Hall, these retouchings will seem incongruously glamorous. The hall itself looks—and, one hopes, will sound—pretty much the same as it did before, only less shabby. But the shabbiness kept the rental costs and ticket prices down, and it would be a shame if the scruffy ensembles who played there regularly couldn’t afford it any more. An elegantly empty Merkin Hall would be as forlorn as a lavishly restored synagogue nobody attends.