With its imposing blocklike twin towers and sober neo-Gothic design, the synagogue at 60 Norfolk Street on Manhattan’s Lower East Side has stood like a sentry at its present site since 1850 — long enough to earn landmark status from the city’s Landmarks Preservation Commission. But now, this synagogue’s own congregation is seeking its destruction.
Congregation Beth Hamedrash Hagadol, considered to be the oldest Russian Jewish congregation in the United States, is looking to reverse the landmark status of the venerable structure in which it once prayed in order to demolish it and make way for a multi-use development.
In an application submitted last December to the city’s Landmarks Preservation Commission, representatives of the synagogue argued that cumulative damage to the building in recent years is now too great for their modest congregation to pay to repair. A new development, the congregation argues, with a synagogue and a small museum on the ground floor, and space for residential use on the upper floors, would generate the funds the building needs to survive. Though the old structure would be gone, the congregation claims, the new building, with a small synagogue still inside, would be commensurate with the site’s historical and cultural value.
Architectural preservationists have expressed dismay at the idea of losing a building that has been among the Lower East Side’s most prominent houses of worship since the mid-19th century.
“When we lose these buildings, we lose our past,” Holly Kaye, founding executive director of the Lower East Side Jewish Conservancy, told the Forward. “It’s not good enough to just have a picture of the way it used to look.”
It was through an uncommon bit of foresight that Rabbi Ephraim Oshry sought to have Beth Hamedrash designated a city landmark in 1967. Oshry, then the congregation’s leader, acted after hearing from a congregant about plans to develop the cooperative residential towers that now dot the area around the Williamsburg Bridge.