The “bones” of the Eldridge Street Synagogue; Photo: Peter Aaron/Esto
When people come to the Eldridge Street Synagogue they are wowed by the beautiful main sanctuary. What they don’t see right away is the care and deliberation that went into restoring it. Here I wanted to share special areas in the synagogue that reveal our preservation philosophy – one that focuses on authenticity and the human touch.
The un-restored panel of lath and plaster above is one of my favorite places in the synagogue. More than 60% of the sanctuary looked like this before the Museum stepped in to restore the building. It is a reminder of how this building so easily could have been lost. I like, too, that you can see the “bones” of the building, or the materials with which it was put together. If you look closely you can even discover bits of horse hair, which were used to bind the plaster together 125 years ago! In Judaism, there is a tradition of leaving a portion of a building unfinished in memory of the Temple so it serves as a reminder of that, too.
Bare bulbs around the Ten Commandments. Photo: Kate Milford
When you enter the sanctuary is it beautifully illuminated with electric lights. But that was not always the case. In 1887, when the synagogue opened, it was lit by gas. The congregation did not electrify until a generation later in 1907. By the point, they must have realized they needed electricity to keep technologically up-to-date. (Electricity back then = the Wi-Fi of today.) So taken were the congregants with the new electric technology they installed this crown of bare bulbs around the Ten Commandments. What looks somewhat carnivalesque today was most impressive back then. Our restoration retained this feature because it tells this story. Electrifying!
Another favorite feature I like to point out is the synagogue’s floorboards. They are a simple pine showing their wear and tear. When you move your feet back and forth along them you feel a dip – and that is exactly the point. Rather than replacing them with new flooring we retained the original wood. It bears the imprint of the many people who gathered at the synagogue and left their mark – quite physically – in the building. By saving the original wood floorboard we are reminded of those many people who worshipped and gathered here. When you visit the Eldridge Street Synagogue, you walk in the footprints of those who came before.
Worn wood floorboards remind us of those who came before. Photo: Ed Cheng
Are there aspects of the building you are curious about? In future posts, I will share more about the Museum’s preservation choices.
An artisan from Evergreene Studios works on the building
Our building tours offer visitors a peek into the workings of the historic Eldridge Street Synagogue, and we’ve been busy adding new themes and tours to our lineup. You can now experience Eldridge through the lens of immigration, ritual practice, or architecture and preservation.
On Beyond the Facade: Architecture and Preservation, we break out the flashlights and turn our visitors into forensic architects. What were the choices made by the founders of the Eldridge Street Synagogue 123 years ago? How did this building, the first synagogue built from the ground up by Eastern European Jews, reflect the aspirations of an immigrant community? What techniques and materials were used in its original construction? Which buildings, religious and secular, inspired the architecture of this space?
But this building is more than just an ossified architectural relic, and on the tour visitors also explore the 20-year, 19 million-dollar restoration of this space. What was the preservation philosophy at Eldridge Street? Where can you find the unrestored elements of the building, and why were they left alone? How does a new contemporary window, designed by Kiki Smith and Deborah Gans, fit into a high Victorian space? And my favorite: which bug produces the laquer used on the benches?
So next time you’re in the neighborhood, make sure to stop by and experience Eldridge as never before. Offered daily at 11:30, 1:30 and 3:30. Whet your appetite for architecture with this restoration video, which offers insight into the process of restoring this century-old building.
After leaving Eastern Europe, the founders of our synagogue forged their lives as Americans on the streets of the Lower East Side. How did they celebrate their newfound heritage? Unfortunately, I’ve found no mention of barbecued borscht or other culinary treats, but a strong sense of pride as Americans certainly took hold in the Eldridge Street Synagogue’s congregation.
As Annie Polland comments in Landmark of the Spirit: The Eldridge Street Synagogue,
Within the walls of the synagogue, immigrants forged an American Jewish identity that blended patriotism to their new country with a sense of responsibility to Jews around the world…In 1889 the congregation decorated the synagogue in honor of the centennial of George Washington’s iunaguruation and, in 1901, held a memorial service for President William McKinley. During World War I, the congregation commisioned and displayed an American flag with stars for each one of the congregation’s sons serving in the war (12.)
This ode to the patriotic boys serving overseas hung from special flagholders, placed in the women’s balcony and embellished with five-pointed American stars. Flying proudly from the magestic facade of the Eldridge Street Synagogue, the flag must have seemed like a banner for American pride and identity. Though the flags have been lost to time, the flagholders stand as important reminders of the independence felt by our founders in this country.
Recently, James Cooper’s “Painting in the City” class at the Educational Alliance came to visit Eldridge Street for some watercolor inspiration and exploration. James was kind enough to share some of the students’ work with us.
For more work from different sites, check out the class’ blog here. I couldn’t help but think of this historic photograph while perusing through the class’ pictures, taken of a portrait class at the Educational Alliance in1918. Below is a photograph of Cooper’s class, 92 years later. Who knows how many generations of artists have been inspired by the Eldridge Street Synagogue and other East Side landmarks?
My name is Sonny, and I have been interning at The Museum at Eldridge Street for five months now. As the education intern at the museum, one of my jobs is researching new and interesting facts to include in our tours and school programs. I’ve always been fascinated by history, especially the unusual parts that people are less likely to discuss! One thing I love about the Museum at Eldridge Street are the clues that teach us about the ways that the first congregants balanced their cultural and religious identities with the new American way of life they were now living – many of which are built right into the synagogue itself. Something that sparked my interest when I first visited the museum in 2008 was the snuff box in the Bes Medrash – it seemed totally out of place, as well as perfectly natural, and in my opinion is one of the parts of the synagogue that gives it’s first congregants a more human face. Recently, Miriam Bader asked me to do some research on the history of snuff to share with our docents, and I was very intrigued by what I found out!
What is “Snuff?”
Smokeless tobacco has been manufactured and sold across the globe for centuries, but was most popular in the United States during the late 18th and early 19th centuries. The two main categories are dry and moist snuff. Dry snuff is pulverized tobacco, which a user would take a pinch of and sniff into their nose. Dry snuff was typically thought of as a European habit, hence it is also referred to as “European snuff.” In the United States the more typical form of smokeless tobacco has always been moist snuff. Commonly referred to as “dip,” moist snuff is a version of Snus, a Swedish smokeless tobacco which was brought to America by Swedish immigrants in the 19th century. Moist snuff is often confused with chewing tobacco, but their uses are slightly different: rather than chewing snuff, a person would take a pinch of the loose tobacco and place it between their lower lip and their gums. Sucking on the tobacco causes an excess of saliva to develop, making it necessary to spit into a container (or on the ground!), as swallowing can cause nausea or irritation to the esophagus. Long time users, however, can often swallow without any side effect, which is colloquially referred to as “gutting” it. It became popular because it was able to be used indoors, especially during long work days, when an employee might not get a cigarette break or might be required to use both hands to work.
At Eldridge Street
Since smoking was a common habit among Americans during the early days of the Eldridge Street Synagogue, it is not surprising that many of the male members of the congregation would use snuff during long services when they could not smoke cigarettes. Accordingly, the snuff box in the bimah in the Bes Medrash, which is one of the most unusual features of the architecture at Eldridge Street, does not seem so out of place when you consider the widespread nature of the habit at the time of the synagogue’s construction. During the synagogue’s hey-day, the congregation used a portion of their funds every year to purchase new spittoons, and had strict rules regarding spitting on the floor, as noted in the detailed minute books. These facts leave us with the assumption that many of the congregants used dip during services rather than European snuff, as dry snuff does not require the user to spit. Additionally, moist snuff was more popular in the U.S. at the time and therefore it was likely much easier to purchase. However, it is possible that the congregation might have provided dry snuff in the snuff box in the Bes Medrash. Either way, smokeless tobacco was a popular indulgence of the time that many of the congregants took part in, even during religious services.
Visitors to the Museum currently have the option of going on our standard tour, Landmark of the Spirit, which focuses on the synagogue’s history, the Jewish East Side neighborhood, and the American immigrant experience. They can also explore our surroundings through our menu of walking tours, which range from the thrilling Gangster, Writer, Rabbi to the moving Love & Courtship.
Our building, however, is multifaceted—not just a historical site, but a significant portal into architecture and religious practice. In order to explore these planes and present them to the public, we are in the process of developing two new visitor experiences.
The Architecture Tour will debut in Spring 2010, and will explore the award-winning restoration of our National Historic Landmark. It will draw parallels with other prominent sites in New York City, nationally, and around the world that have faced preservation challenges and responded in innovative ways.
This tour is a collaborative project between the Museum at Eldridge Street and the preservation programs of Columbia University, Pratt Institute and the University of Pennsylvania. Students are researching and writing about aspects of the building and design that will help the public to engage in the building and its architecture.
Questions to be answered include: Does the design reflect the process of Americanization? What choices were made in its restoration? How does it fit into the museum’s preservation ethos? Are there examples at other sites that might be meaningful? Ultimately, we will hear back from the students about preservation projects that use green technology or sustainable practices, sites that provide creative examples of adaptive re-use, using the case study at Eldridge Street, among others.
We’ll be keeping you updated as this project develops further.
What happens when contemporary art and historic architecture combine? Find out at the Museum at Eldridge Street, which has commissioned artist Kiki Smith and architect Deborah Gans to create a new monumental east window for the 1887 Eldridge Street Synagogue. This installation will be completed in Spring 2010. Walking into the grand sanctuary, visitors will get a taste of both 1887 and 2010, Victorian architecture with a modern day interpretation.
Originally, stained glass rose windows at the front and back greeted worshippers at the Eldridge Street Synagogueon opening day. Always unstable, the East Window finally collapsed out of its frame in the late 1930s, leaving the congregation with a gaping hole at the front of the majestic sanctuary. Lacking the funds for a reproduction, the congregation replaced it with a clear tablet-shaped glass-block design in 1944-45, which remains in the wall today.
During the 20-year restoration process, the East Window became a major question: How do we restore an element for which there are no original building plans and no photographs? After an extended decision-making process, we opted for a new commission which would return an inspiring interior and offer a respectful solution to the irreplaceable original.
Smith and Gans’ design, a galaxy of golden stars against an ever-changing blue firmament, recreates in stained-glass the blue and gold star pattern painted on the walls immediately surrounding the new window. According to their statement, “The new stained-glass window will use the features and motifs of the existing synagogue in a new way so that the mind and eye reflects back on the interior space as they are drawn into the space of the window. The wall pattern of five pointed gold stars against a blue sky will be extended across the window. The ribs of the window will radiate from a Star of David at the center. In pattern and shape, this window will be similar to the existing ceiling domes of the synagogue and also the trompe-l’oeil windows to either side of the arc. The current technology of flash glass makes it possible to etch the yellow stars into a blue field without any outline or leading so that they will appear as more intense sources of light within the glow of the window. The translation of the traditional motif of the synagogue with this material and structure will intensify the floating qualities of the synagogue space and surfaces.”
To inaugurate the new East Window and investigate the challenges of restoration, visit the Museum at Eldridge Street every Wednesday at 1 PM for a special preservation tour. Be sure to keep reading for more about our exciting East Window initiative!
Welcome to the Museum at Eldridge Street’s new blog. Based in the 1887 Eldridge Street Synagogue, the Museum at Eldridge Street presents the culture, history and traditions of the great wave of Jewish immigrants to the Lower East Side drawing parallels with the diverse cultural communities that have settled in America.
We use our landmark space to tell a multitude of stories and experiences. By visiting, you can explore American history, immigration history, Jewish ritual and culture, art and architecture. Our rich cultural programs bring the space to life with music, literature and laughter, and our walking tours keep pace with the history running through the local streets.
I’m Nina Cohen, Education Coordinator at the Museum (there I am on the left, hanging out in the historic women’s gallery!) I’ll be writing most of what you’ll find here on the blog. I’m a walking-tour leading, history-book reading recent college grad, and the Museum at Eldridge Street is one of my all-time favorite places in New York. Where else can you find a High Victorian synagogue located in the heart of Chinatown? We’ll also be featuring updates from our talented and creative staff, giving us the inside scoop on development, education, programs and marketing.
Our hope for this blog is to give you a behind-the-scenes peek into the inner workings of our museum. What work goes into our exhibits, tours and programs? Check back here to view videos of the fantastic musicians who perform in our concerts, photographs and quirky historic articles we’ve discovered, and updates from our creative staff. Our historic neighborhood is always evolving, and I’ll be blogging about its unique history and contemporary life.
We see the blog as a way of opening our historic front doors to the public, and letting you all in. Was that post interesting? Is there an item in our collection you’d like to know more about? How about a historic photo you’d love to see featured? We can’t wait to hear from you!