Gay Synagogue Moves From the West Village, But Takes Its Rich Civil-Rights History With It

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Cass Gilbert’s 1928 building is a city landmark, which means Congregation Beit Simchat Torah could make only minimal changes to the façade, so they placed the sign on the inside. Photo: Konstantin Sergeyev

On Sunday, when the members of Congregation Beit Simchat Torah (CBST) march from their Bethune Street home to their new quarters at 130 West 30th Street, they’ll be hauling a lot of history. There’s the rainbow-colored chuppah that Rabbi Sharon Kleinbaum used to celebrate the first same-sex Jewish weddings in front of City Hall on July 24, 2011. There’s an upholstered chair, bequeathed by a member who, in the last months before he died of AIDS in 1992, found the old metal folding chairs a torment. There are the candles carried in a shopping bag, just as they were on the Friday evening in 1973, when a dozen people answered a tiny ad in the Village Voice (“Gay Synagogue,” it announced) and gathered in a church annex.

And there are the memories of the small room at the back of the Westbeth in the West Village complex that the congregation has outgrown. “Our old space was like a lesbian bar from the 1970s,” Rabbi Kleinbaum jokes: “You couldn’t find it unless you knew it was there, and when you got inside you couldn’t see the world outside and the world couldn’t see you.” Now, CBST is moving into a pair of windowed storefronts that once sold furs and handbags, a sign that visibility is no longer a liability. The front door is faced with purple glass and the sign is lettered in gold.

One section of storefront glass is tinted purple to mark the synagogue entrance. Photo: Konstantin Sergeyev

The new synagogue occupies the lower levels of a landmark commercial building designed by Cass Gilbert (the architect of the Woolworth Building) in 1928 and converted into condos in 2003. Gilbert’s terra-cotta medallions, vertical piers, and doorway friezes inscribed with Assyrian lions have the kind of texture and shadow that almost no contemporary façades can manage these days. A pair of Garment District shops might seem like an unpromising place to house an organization with a story as dynamic and tumultuous as CBST’s. Columns segment the interior, making the space awkward and tight: 17,000 square feet, chopped up into three levels. Yet a team from Architecture Research Office (ARO), led by Stephen Cassell, has turned drawbacks into strengths. So the architects carved a niche out of one column for the eternal light, flattened the sanctuary against a back wall to make it feel like an intimate chamber, and turned a staircase down to the basement into a social space.

Undulating concrete panels and a screen of twisted oak staves over the ark give the sanctuary’s back wall texture and vibrancy. Photo: Konstantin Sergeyev

It’s rare for a work of institutional architecture to cram so much meaning into such a modest space. Years of shopping for real estate, countless false starts, and a construction budget of just $8 million yielded a design so understated that you could easily breeze in, sit through a bar mitzvah, graze at the kiddush table, and beat it back to Penn Station, all without noticing the building’s architectural virtues. In religious buildings of the pre-industrial age, that craftsmanship, sculpture, architecture, leadership, acoustics, music, and engineering merged. It would be an overstatement to say that ARO achieved that kind of organic fusion with CBST. Still, the architects husbanded meager funds to lavish them on meaningful details while leaving the rest affordably generic. The floors are bare terrazzo, donor names aren’t chiseled in stone but stenciled on painted walls. Almost every room — chapel, kitchen, lobby, classroom, and boardroom — doubles as something else. But in the spots where it counts, custom luxury asserts itself — in the pews, for instance, made in London by Luke Hughes, purveyor of furniture to cathedrals and royal palaces.  They are made of oak, for a durability that is symbolic as well as practical; curved to bring congregants as close together as possible; stackable so that the room can be cleared for dancing; upholstered not just for comfort but also in memory of those painful metal chairs.

The hand-carpentered oak pews express the congregation’s ambitions to be intimate, comfortable, flexible, and enduring.

The heart of the building is the sanctuary, a chamber, really, that holds only 299. (These Jews aren’t done wandering: Major Friday night services will still need other venues, and High Holy Day services, which draw crowds in the thousands, will still be held at the Javits Center.) The back wall leans slightly outward, enlarging the space without adding illicit square feet, while at the same time creating a ring of skylights above the bimah. It’s a gesture full of subtle drama. Sunshine struggles down between the buildings and gradually fades, marking the passage from workday to holiday, while the congregation — the part toward the front, anyway — can look up through the skylight into a mid-block alleyway and remember that they belong in New York. Once through the glass, the light slips down along wavy concrete panels, like a gently glowing waterfall. The undulations diffuse sound, which serves the acoustics in a religious institution that places a premium on music. They have another function, too: along with the nap of the cushions, a silver-and-gold woven curtain, and a screen of twisted oak staves, the striated wall enriches the texture all around, reinforcing the sense that surfaces have shadow, individuality, and sensual depth.

The custom wallpaper in the bathroom recalls important chapters from the congregation’s four-decade history. Photo: Konstantin Sergeyev

ARO’s design bears the evidence of a close collaboration between patient, detail-oriented architects and a client of Talmudic bent. History and symbolism weave through the building in intimate ways. The wallpaper in the elevator and the bathrooms is printed with memorabilia, not all of it joyful: newspaper articles about the “Homosexual Temple,” photographs of weddings and parades, a picture of Rabbi Kleinbaum getting arrested at a demonstration, a 1981 letter from a member describing his strange, awful illness, still unnamed. Near the baseboard of the single-sex bathroom, an official notice from the Department of Buildings is a masterpiece of poignant bureaucratese: “Where the conventional definition of gender is no longer sufficient, the request … to provide a single ‘gender-neutral’ arrangement is hereby approved.”

New York City’s Department of Buildings allowed the synagogue to install a single gender neutral bathroom—provided stalls had floor-to-ceiling partitions and separate vents. Photo: Konstantin Sergeyev

ARO’s small space serves a tiny congregation that’s had an outsized role in profound social change. Its membership includes Edie Windsor, who brought the suit that eventually brought down the Defense of Marriage Act, and her lawyer Roberta Kaplan, who argued the case in front of the Supreme Court. Even so, the world’s hostility remains an architectural issue: The storefront window is made of bomb-resistant glass, and the next-door neighbor is a fortresslike NYPD station. How wondrous that nearly 50 years after cops raided the Stonewall Inn, a gay synagogue now takes comfort in the proximity of the police.

*This post originally stated that New York’s first same-sex Jewish wedding took on June 24, 2011. It was July 24, 2011. We apologize for the error.

Gay Synagogue Gets a New Home