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Restoration: Hybrid Vigor

Project: Temple Emanu-El, New York

Architects: Beyer Blinder Belle Architects & Planners LLP, New York, NY; Tom Lindberg, project architect

Restoration Consultant: James W. Rhodes, Croton, NY

Roofing Consultant: James R. Gainfort, New York, NY

By Eve M. Kahn

In 1929, the largest Jewish congregation in America unveiled one of the world's largest synagogues, at the posh Manhattan intersection of Fifth Avenue and 65th Street. Flying buttresses and a bell tower gave a medieval cast to the limestone exterior of Temple Emanu-El, but inside lay a medley of architectural details of an eclecticism probably still unrivaled in the hemisphere.

The ceiling's brightly painted exposed trusses provide a provincial Spanish touch over Byzantine gilt-glass mosaics, Moorish wall filigree, Romanesque arched bays for lancet windows, Arts & Crafts austere walnut pews and Art Deco cylindrical light fixtures. "And look up there, those ziggurat and sawtooth patterns painted along the ceiling cove, those to me seem to have an almost Aztec-Egyptian quality," says Mark H. Heutlinger, the synagogue's administrator.

The congregation's leaders, with New York, NY-based Beyer Blinder Belle Architects & Planners LLP, have just made the building's stylistic synthesis more visible and ebullient than ever. In column-free spaces soaring up to 103 ft. high, restorers have poured light – whether natural, electric, or reflected – into formerly murky corners and revamped every underlying technology.

"We've worked on every surface you see," says project architect Tom Lindberg. "We took away a layer of dishwater-gray grime that in some spots was measurably thick. What's amazing is how majestic the space still was when we started, in spite of all the obscurity."

Temple Emanu-El is the congregation's fifth home since 1845, when three-dozen New Yorkers of German ancestry first started following the then-new Reform movement. After a few years of meeting in rented rooms on the Lower East Side, they converted a neighborhood Methodist church into a synagogue, then remodeled a nearby Baptist sanctuary, and finally built a domed and turreted headquarters from scratch at Fifth Avenue and 43rd Street. As the congregation grew, and members moved uptown, the leadership commissioned a new building for a site formerly occupied by the Astor family's 1890s chateaus.

The Upper East Side synagogue resulted from the collaboration of a handful of local architects: Robert D. Kohn, Charles Butler and Clarence Stein, plus the firm of Mayers, Murray & Phillip. Kohn, Butler and Stein had all trained at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts. Mayers, Murray & Phillip was the successor firm to religious architecture specialist Bertram Grosvenor Goodhue's office, where Stein had worked in the 1910s. This compatible team brought in some of their era's finest craftspeople to contrast ancient and avant-garde materials while incorporating symbols of the faith like menorahs, harps, biblical landscapes and Stars of David.

Philadelphia ironworker Samuel Yellin forged a dozen octagonal torchères for the lobby, and Manhattan muralist Hildreth Meière designed glass-and-marble mosaics that were fabricated at St. Louis' Ravenna Mosaic Company. Manhattan metalworker Oscar Bach cast bronze chandeliers and Ark doors and frames for the sanctuary and adjacent chapel, bronze rosettes for the lobby's Spanish travertine walls and nickel railings and scrollwork radiator covers throughout the building. Manhattan sculptor Ulysses Ricci produced Romanesque capitals for the polychrome marble columns, and innovative tilemakers at the Guastavino Co. clad the sanctuary walls in stucco-like slabs called Akoustolith.

Amid the ornament spectacles are subtle details that the untrained eye can barely detect, and that Beyer Blinder Belle only discovered via binoculars or scaffolding. "There are chamfers all along the steel-reinforced raised plaster bands on the ceiling," Lindberg points out. "The arch over the entrance is chamfered, too, and its glazed paint finish gets more matte as it gets closer to the walls, in an amazingly seamless way."

"There's a second set of marble pillars that you can hardly see, right behind the pillars over the Ark, just to add a sense of depth, and the Akoustolith grades from lighter to darker as it gets closer to the ceiling, for an added sense of mystery overhead," adds Heutlinger.

Worshippers' only complaint about the building over the years was its lack of air conditioning. But when the administration set out to remedy that flaw eight years ago, structural problems, including failing gutters and drainpipes, turned up. A fundraising brochure issued in the early 2000s was blunt about the need for some $25 million. Parts of the building were "cracking and flaking" and "compromised by heat, cold and water," the brochure warned, while others "have not been professionally cleaned since construction and are covered by a patina of soot."

While fundraising progressed, Beyer Blinder Belle had time for extensive testing and strategizing. "The Akoustolith is porous, and we realized that over the years it just sucked up dirt," says Lindberg. "We looked at wet cleaning solutions, chemical solutions, foam-pellet sandblasting, a vacuum-and-spray combination, but everything we tried either did damage or left the walls moist. Finally we came up with Wishab sponges, which are like big dry erasers. In the end we went through thousands of them, case after case." (The product's Canadian manufacturer, Carr McLean, more typically sells them to conservators working on paper or fragile textiles.)

Construction eventually proceeded in two phases during 2005 and 2006, with breaks so that High Holy Day services could be held uninterrupted. The construction manager was Tishman Interiors Corp. of New York, NY, and engineers included AKF Engineers (mechanical/electrical/plumbing) of New York, NY, and JaffeHolden (acoustics) of Norwalk, CT. "There were deadlines that could not be missed," recalls Lindberg. "Tishman did an amazing job of timing everything, with no compromises of quality."

Air conditioning was woven through the ceiling's existing ventilation ducts and tucked into the under-floor plenum. The pews were removed, Lindberg explains, "but they weren't stripped and refinished. We only evened out the color, put on a new protective coating and had new cushions made in a custom Scalamandré fabric with red and gold hexagons that work with the building's overruling geometry and add reflectivity."

Artisans from Manhattan's EverGreene Painting Studios spent months infilling about 20 percent of the ceiling's polychrome, then applied a protective yet reversible lacquer coat. Brooklyn, NY-based Wilson Conservation took on the Bach and Yellin metalwork, exposing long-forgotten enamel and stone inlays. Under the supervision of stained-glass restorers Femenella & Associates, based in Branchburg, NJ, all 62 of the synagogue's stained-glass windows (including a multilayered, opalescent Tiffany landscape) were removed, re-leaded, cleaned, and reinstalled. Protective sheets of clear laminated glass have replaced the former exterior layers of yellowed plexiglass.

The interior glows thanks to new lighting systems as well, engineered by Manhattan-based theater specialist Sachs Morgan Studio. Uplights and sidelights on the sanctuary window frames bathe the bay arches, ceiling and mosaics. Along the side corridors, unobtrusive bronze frames hold edge-lit glass panes etched with the names of the restoration project's donors. In the lobby, blacksmith Joel Schwartz added two replicas of Yellin's torchères, "and the copies are so perfect that I can't tell anymore which ones are Joel's," Heutlinger says. The torchère beams sparkle now on the ceiling's restored silvered and gilded coffers and corbels. But in one back corner, a tiny triangle is still dingy.

"We left that to show people what this looked like back in 2005," explains Heutlinger. "It's intentionally shaped like the windows at the top of the Chrysler Building, another Art Deco landmark completed the same year as ours."

The Chrysler Building, however, makes much more of a streetscape statement than Temple Emanu-El's demure limestone cube. "The exterior fits into the Fifth Avenue gray-flannel scene," Lindberg observes. "It's not an obviously wild design until you step inside. The surprise of the vibrancy here has such impact. As the restoration came together, people who'd been coming here all their lives were stunned to see how much detail we'd revealed." TB

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