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Saving a Synagogue

Project: The Eldridge Street Synagogue, New York, NY

Architects: Walter Sedovic Architects, Irvington-On-Hudson, NY; Jill H. Gotthelf, Associate; Walter Sedovic, Principal/CEO

Restoration Contractor: Seaboard Weatherproofing and Restoration Company, Port Chester, NY

Structural Engineer: Robert Sillman Associates, Washington, DC

By Nicole V. Gagné

New York City's first major synagogue built by Jews who had emigrated from Eastern Europe was the Eldridge Street Synagogue, located on Manhattan's Lower East Side. Completed in 1887, this majestic house of worship combined Moorish with Romanesque and Gothic design into a unique edifice, distinguished by a 70-ft. vaulted ceiling, hand-stenciled walls, and superb stained-glass rose windows.

Well into the 1920s, the synagogue played a vital role for New York City's thriving Jewish community and attracted thousands of worshippers. With the Great Depression and the subsequent scattering of the city's Jews to the suburbs and beyond, the Eldridge Street Synagogue sank into disrepair and quiescence. Lacking the funds to heat and maintain the main sanctuary, the shrinking congregation worshipped in a small chapel downstairs. The roof steadily decayed, rain infiltrated the building and the upstairs sanctuary, deserted from the 1950s to 1980, began to deteriorate drastically.

The first important step in rescuing the synagogue began in the late 1970s, when New York University professor Gerald Wolfe organized the Friends of the Eldridge Street Syna-gogue. By 1984, the group had raised enough money to stabilize the building's exterior, but the lengthy multi-million-dollar effort to restore the synagogue required greater control and oversight, and so the not-for-profit, non-sectarian Eldridge Street Project (ESP) was founded by jornalist and urban critic Roberta Brandes Gratz in 1986. The following year the synagogue's centennial was marked by reaching the goal of raising sufficient funds for restoration to commence.

The enormity of the task, however, required the creation of a master plan by a qualified architect, and in 1990 Jill H. Gotthelf, then with the New York City-based firm of Robert E. Mead-ows, PC, Architects, met that challenge. Although now an associate with Walter Sedovic Architects (WSA) in Irvington-on-Hudson, NY, she has remained with the project for more than 16 years. "The master plan set up a preservation philosophy for the building," recounts Gotthelf, "which has been followed to date, one project at a time, including the general programming and usage for each of the different areas, and how the congregation and the Eldridge Street Project would go hand-in-hand and work in the building."

Walter Sedovic, principal and CEO of WSA, lauds what he calls "Jill's brilliance and her vision with the master plan," and notes that his firm's involvement began "when she came back to work with us about four years ago, and we've been able to infuse her plan with green, or sustainable, building technologies." These innovations have ranged from bathroom stalls made of recycled milk bottles to recycled blue jeans utilized for insulation; equally important has been the use of salvaged materials. "Before we came into the building, the north stairs had collapsed due to water damage from the open roof," explains Gotthelf. "But all the pieces of that stair were catalogued and stored in the building, and so for the restoration of the south stairs, we're using as many pieces from the north stair as we can. Where additional timbers are required, we have sourced salvaged timbers from other places. We're even using a salvaged bank-teller's window for the new ticket window between the street-level lobby and the main interpretive center." "It's superb and it fits exactly in the space that exists, like it was waiting to be placed there," adds Sedovic.

Another example of what WSA has touted as "the greening of Eldridge Street Synagogue" was the application of lime mortar rather than cement to re-point the façade – although this traditional material was novel for WSA's restoration contractor, Port Chester, NY-based Seaboard Weatherproofing and Restoration Company. "We brought in Seaboard for the facade restoration and they did a remarkable job," says Sedovic. "Lime mortar is a 6,000-year-old material with great durability, which is ancient in the world of architecture but was new to our contractor. It required a training program for the workers, and they fell in love with the way it handles and works – the flexibility allowed through its installation. The material's perfectly suited to the façade; it's absolutely stunning when you look at it now."

Along with re-pointing the masonry, Seaboard also repaired the window surrounds, cleaned the brick façade and restored the large terra-cotta center window. "It was wonderful to get Seaboard on board with the green aspects of the project," says Gotthelf. "We found a construction site in New Jersey with bluestone pavers that they wanted to dispose of, and Seaboard willingly went to Jersey City so we could use salvaged bluestone pavers for the areaways of Eldridge Street that we had to re-pave."

Long absent from the Eldridge Street Synagogue's exterior was its group of seven roof finials. "From what we can tell," says Gotthelf, "pieces of the original finials were taken down little by little because they had been getting violations from the New York City Building Department over many years. They were originally sheet metal, probably galvanized because the skylights and all of the gutters were galvanized." "Once the galvanized coating was breached, rusting began," says Sedovic. "With an element that far out of reach, exposed to winds and rain and sleet and snow, you can imagine that it wouldn't take long before pieces were falling off. We also did a lot of work with the masonry bases of the finials, which proved to be one of the most vulnerable elements of the façade and had been reduced to sand. So we completely reconstructed those and then in-corporated the new finials."

"We never saw the original finials in place," admits Gotthelf. "But there's an early watercolor with a design for them, which matches exactly the design of the finials on the ark within the building, and that was the basis for recreating them." The new finials have a stainless-steel framework – made by Glenridge Fabricators of Queens, NY – which is surrounded by a decorative fiberglass shell, fabricated by Architectural Fiberglass of Copiague, NY. Once capped with a cast-aluminum Star of David made by Gratz Industries of Queens, NY, each finial was then ready to be put back into place, lifted some 100 ft. above the ground by a boom.

A ceremony was held in the spring of 2006 to celebrate the replacement of the central ornament finial and mark the completion of the facade restoration. Inside, however, the work continues. "We've just spent a couple of months with EverGreene Painting Studios," says Gotthelf, "doing mock-ups to determine what we can do to hold onto the authentic painted finishes – where we can just clean and conserve, where we can remove upper layers of paint and just in-paint, where it's missing and we'll need to recreate it. So much is intact that, for the most part, we're just cleaning and conserving. The painted finishes will show that patina of time, and there's no goal to bring them back to the pristine finish they had when they were created. In the case of the murals, there's an area where we will re-adhere paint that has started to delaminate from the surface; in other areas where there's paint loss, we'll in-paint. The ceiling has its original coat of paint and has been cleaned, and for the most part the entire upper area of the sanctuary is just going to be cleaned. Of course, where there was significant water damage by the towers and along the exterior walls, we have to put in new plaster and will recreate finishes."

"This aspect of authenticity distinguishes this project, so that we're looking at real stuff, not a recreation, down to the finishes on the light fixtures," Sedovic points out. "We're not shining them up like a new penny, but rather simply cleaning them and patching where there are holes, and just adoring that patination of time, which everybody really responds to."

"The key word for the building is 'authentic,'" says Gotthelf, "and you feel its time, from the ruts in the floor where the congregations have davened, to the finishes on the walls. You can feel the people as you're in the space, and there was no way that we wanted to erase that. So care is being given. We're going to hand sand the floors with steel wool, and refinish them the way they are. All of those ruts are going to stay. The building tells a story and we don't want to change it; we embrace that story, and all the quirks and the funny things that happened, which are part of that story."

One example of maintaining this authenticity is how the chandelier in the women's gallery is being handled. According to Gotthelf, it was originally a gas fixture, but it was installed as an electric fixture and turned upside down. "They wanted the lights to shine down and be brighter, and because it was originally a gas fixture and all its shades faced up, they hung it upside down. Of course we have the opportunity at this point to turn it the right way, but we're not going to; we're going to put it back in the way they had it, because it's part of the story."

"This approach extends to other elements of the building," notes Sedovic. "Our structural engineer, Robert Sillman of Robert Sillman Associates, commented that, from a structural standpoint, he didn't quite know how the historic stair that remains was still standing. But there it was. We respect this tradition of building a stair in a certain way that makes it very difficult to understand exactly how it works, and yet it does work. We're retaining that structure, the light fixture, and other quirks – every stained-glass location is different from the others, because of the forming techniques used in the terra cotta or in the surrounds for the windows. When you look closely, you see that there's a very human aspect to the way the building was constructed. We keep all these things and celebrate them and point them out."

The cooperation and understanding of the Eldridge Street Project has been essential to this restoration philosophy, according to Sedovic. "A project like this is so complex and takes place over such a long period that it's exceedingly important for there to be coherence in the end result and look like there was a single voice. We're fortunate because the executive director [of ESP], Amy E. Waterman, has great vision. She's got a terrific board, and by and large, the people who've been associated with the project at its many organizational levels have been very consistent. And if some have come on board more recently than others, they too were of a similar quality as the others. So there's a lot of trust and a lot of understanding and a lot of love for the site, and as a consequence, when we go though the decision-making process, everybody's voice is heard, but somehow the consistency rings true. It's reflected in every element, from the excavations in the cellar, through the façade restoration, the roofing, the mechanical systems, the finishes, the lighting. The end result will be a jewel that is totally complete and totally one, in and of itself, which can be recognized for exactly what it is: a place in an important community within New York City, which still reflects the time and the people and the passage of events in a very authentic and real way, throughout."

Such continuity is fundamental to the Eldridge Street Synagogue. "The congregation has not missed a single day of prayer since the building was built," Gotthelf points out, "and the Eldridge Street Project has a long-term arrangement to share the space with the congregation."

"The synagogue is used as a house of worship and also as a cultural institution that depicts a lot of issues related to Judaism, the development of the Lower East Side, and this congregation's particular role in that larger context," adds Sedovic. These twin themes will be celebrated with the completion of the entire restoration, which is targeted for October 21, 2007. "The building had its grand opening for Rosh Hashanah in 1887," explains Gotthelf. "It will be 120 years old in 2007, and there's an expression used in Judaism, 'You should live to 120 like Moses.' So 120 is a very significant year. One hundred is considered old life, and you should live 20 more beyond that."

"It's a great target," Sedovic declares, "and this building will continue to live another 120 and another 120 beyond that." TB

 

 

 
 

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