Eldridge Street Restores Jewish History

Eldridge Street Synagogue

Finials are being restored on the Eldridge Street Synagogue.

Courtesy Eldridge Street Project

Just a few paces south of the storefront Puchao Buddhist Temple, is the Eldridge Street Synagogue. Built in 1887, the synagogue is also buzzing with activity — not of worshippers, but of architects, engineers, construction workers and craftspeople, in the last stages of restoring the building to what it once was in time for its 120th birthday. The building will soon reopen as a cultural and educational center.

The Moorish-style synagogue was the first great house of worship for Jews from Eastern Europe and remains a significant marker of the large Jewish community that lived on the Lower East Side from the 1850s to the 1940s. After most of the congregation migrated to the suburbs, a small core of worshippers continued to use the synagogue for services, but were unable to afford the upkeep. Death by nature and neglect — most notably by a leaky ceiling — were imminent by the time the Friends of the Eldridge Street Synagogue secured funds to make the most crucial repairs. The Friends secured emergency funds from public and private sources, began the process to secure landmark designations, and organized emergency stabilization of the building’s exterior, which was completed in 1984. Once it became clear that the restoration would be a complex, multi-million-dollar endeavor, the Eldridge Street Project was established to see it through.

Implementing and overseeing the restoration of the Eldridge Street Synagogue, and aiming to stay true to its history, stories, and aesthetics, Jill Gotthelf, AIA, and Walter Sedovic, AIA, LEED AP, joined the project. Both architects are still scurrying up scaffolding that engulfs the building’s interior, reaching up to its 70-foot-high, decorative painted ceiling. The project is based on plans and specifications prepared by Walter Sedovic Architects. The master plan, which has guided restoration over the last 17 years, was prepared under Gotthelf’s supervision in 1990, when she was employed at Robert E. Meadows Architects. The plan calls for the restoration of the Synagogue to it original grandeur and evidence of a time when the skilled manual labor of craftspeople was cheaper than materials, while leaving intact elements and areas that evidence the building’s history.

A list of some of the work that began in the 1990s includes the excavation (mostly by man power), reinforcement, and stabilization of the building’s foundation. New multi-purpose rooms were carved for the building’s future use as a cultural center, with a space dedicated for Sabbath services. Layers of paint were peeled back to reveal the original coral-colored walls. The slate roof was restored and a skylight system was opened and refurbished. The exterior was re-pointed and made watertight. Rotted and insect-infested structural members were removed and replaced.

In keeping with contemporary thinking, the architectural team has also strived to turn the building into a green environment, something made easier since the original builders used time-enduring materials, local labor, and architecture that made the most of natural light and ventilation.