Landmark Synagogue Seeks Right to Demolish Itself
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.
Like most of the Lower East Side landscape, the synagogue and its surroundings have since changed considerably. Whereas the congregation’s membership was estimated at 1,400 in the late 1960s, it now hovers somewhere in the teens. The building’s front two-story windows, damaged during a summer storm in 1997, have yet to be fully restored. In 2001, an electrical fire severely traumatized the roof and ceiling, exposing the building to deterioration from water and snow.
Because of the resultant exposure of the main sanctuary, the congregation had for years been holding services in a separate room in the synagogue. At the end of 2006, under the leadership of Rabbi Mendl Greenbaum, Oshry’s son-in-law, the congregation ceased to meet in the building altogether, moving their services to a smaller synagogue nearby.
“We put in a lot of needed repairs on a localized level — a patch-up here, patch-up there,” Greenbaum told the Forward, “until it came to a point where we couldn’t continue.”
In late 2011, an order to vacate was issued by the city’s Department of Buildings, citing safety concerns. Efforts to find a developer willing to restore the building from the inside have, by Greenbaum’s description, fallen short.
Critics of the congregation’s current management — which consists mainly of Greenbaum — doubt that the synagogue would have deteriorated to this point had it taken better advantage of grants from various historic preservation agencies.
Laurie Tobias Cohen, the current executive director of the LESJC, chose her words carefully on this point. “People like Oshry may have been brilliant at creating communities, teaching and leading all kinds of Jewish functions,” she said, “but that doesn’t mean that they know how to engage the infrastructure.”
A $230,000 grant from the New York State Office of Parks, Recreation & Historic Preservation, offered in 1999, remained on the table for 11 years. It was never put to use, and eventually it was rescinded. A proposed $750,000 grant, offered in 2006 by the city council, the borough president, and the office of the mayor, was never taken up. Ultimately it was withdrawn, following the economic crash of 2008.
“This seems to be a case of ‘demolition by neglect,’ for which the synagogue should not be rewarded,” a group called Friends of the Lower East Side complained in an email published by the Lo-Down, a community newspaper based on the Lower East Side.
Some critics have cited in particular the synagogue’s management since the torch was passed to Greenbaum from Oshry in the early 2000s. “We worked for all these years carefully with the family and the leadership,” the LESJC’s Kaye said. “It has since become apparent that at some point during the process, Beth Hamedrash leadership made a decision to go off in a completely different direction without informing the people they were working with.”
Greenbaum offered a decidedly different account. He says he worked faithfully with the LESJC over the past 12 years, and that the loss of grants from the city and state were attributable to a cumbersome bureaucracy, the government’s funding pullback since the financial downturn and a collective failure to procure matching funds from private donors — not to any foot-dragging on his own part.
“We acted the most efficient way we were able and capable,” Greenbaum said.
The government grants required matching funds, he noted. “There was one matching fund that we were struggling together with the conservancy [to get]. After eight years, it was allocated, [but only if] the building was… transferred into a nonreligious corporation,” Greenbaum said. “After 9/11, those procedures would have taken months and months.”
LESJC officials counter that transferring the synagogue into a nonreligious corporation would have taken a few weeks at the most.
Conservationists familiar with Beth Hamedrash have wondered aloud if the decision to demolish might be rooted less in the impossibility of redeeming the building than in the cash-generating potential of new apartments at the edge of Seward Park, which received approval for a mixed-use development in October. Greenbaum flatly denies this.
The synagogue has refused more than a few offers over the years from developers looking to convert the address into a for-profit entity as property values in the neighborhood have continued to climb, Greenbaum related. “We shook them off, even when the profit was on the table,” he said. “This has nothing to do with Seward.”
But given the failure to find any developer to work on the existing structure after all this time, “we had to try whatever’s possible for our congregation and the history of our congregation,” Greenbaum said. “My voice has always been to preserve the building. But like I said, things happen, they happen, so at least we need to save whatever is possible for our cause.”
Contact Reid Singer at [email protected]