When a recent issue of Preservation magazine, published by the National Trust for Historic Preservation, crossed my desk, I was both pleased and heartened to see that its cover story concerned the extraordinary renovations done to the Eldridge Street Synagogue on New York's Lower East Side. No tale of restoration after decades of decay was ever more worthy of such prominent coverage in such a respected publication.
The Eldridge Street saga began nearly 40 years ago, when New York University professor Gerald R. Wolfe was prowling around the old Jewish neighborhood in search of landmarks to help illustrate a course he was teaching and stumbled across the remarkable edifice completely by chance. The building was locked up tight and no one was around, but Wolfe persevered and managed to get in touch with Benjamin Markowitz, the sexton at the shul. He eventually let the professor in, but informed him that, though worshippers did gather on Shabbat and for the holidays in the basement chapel, the door to the main sanctuary was nailed shut with a plank, and that no one had been in there for decades.
And yet, the two men did manage to force the door open. What they saw so struck Wolfe that he wrote in a 1994 article about getting goose bumps. "There was an immense brass chandelier hanging from the 70-foot ceiling with all its Victorian glass shades intact. … Brass crowns adorned the light fixtures on the walls, whose motif doubtless represented one of the three crowns of the Jewish tradition."
Wolfe could see all this, despite the fact that every surface was covered with mounds of thick dust. There were shards of colored glass from the magnificent windows lying everywhere. The paint was peeling, roofing lath was exposed, and large pieces of plaster and other debris littered the floor.
All of this is retold in Diane Cole's Preservation article, along with so much more. In addition to the heroic tale of how the restoration got under way, she lays out the synagogue's history and what the shul meant in its heyday to a certain sector of immigrant Jews. She also evaluates the building's architectural significance.
The actual renovation didn't get started until the late '80s, but by 1996, the synagogue was designated a National Historic Landmark. The proclamation explained that the Eldridge Street Synagogue, which dates to 1887, "is the most important artifact of Eastern European Orthodox Judaism in America. It is the first great house of worship built by Eastern European Jews in the United States, located in the neighborhood through which more Jewish immigrants have passed than any other."
Cole also pointed out that the synagogue has received New York City Landmark status, "and is a Save America's Treasures official project."
A slew of striking color photos accompanied the piece, attesting to why this "eclectic Romanesque-Moorish"-style building first gave Wolfe those goose bumps.