In December 2007, the Museum completed the restoration of the 1887 Eldridge Street Synagogue, a National Historic Landmark. It was a 20-year, $18.5 million effort. In 2010 we installed a monumental new stained-glass window by artist Kiki Smith and architect Deborah Gans, a crowning piece of our restoration.
“It was as though the synagogue was held up by strings from heaven,” says Roberta Brandes Gratz, founder of the Museum at Eldridge Street, of her first impression of the synagogue in the early 1980s. Pigeons roosted in the balconies, benches were covered with dust, and stained glass windows had warped with time. Early investigations showed that emergency stabilization was needed; if no work were done, the building would collapse. Public interest in the synagogue’s fate grew, and by 1986 the Eldridge Street Project (now the Museum at Eldridge Street) was formed.
The guiding ethos behind the restoration was to return the synagogue to its original grandeur while retaining elements that revealed its rich story. We did not want the synagogue to look like a newborn baby but rather a well-maintained and absolutely loved 120-plus-year-old building. This was a building that was hand-crafted by people, used by people, and lovingly restored by a new community. When you enter the synagogue one’s initial impact is of grandeur and elevation, in keeping with the sentiment immigrant worshippers would have felt 100 years ago. Upon closer observation, though, you discover elements that reveal the building’s story of prominence, decline and renewal.
Bare bulbs encircling the Ten Commandments have been retained, as have 19th-century gas fixtures. They tell the story of the building’s conversion from gas to electricity in 1909, and the delight the congregation took in this new technology. A single heart appearing in the building’s hand-painted ceiling decorations and other “mistakes” reveal the hand of the original 1887 artisans. An exposed panel of lath and plaster in the women’s balcony is a window onto the synagogue’s mid-century period of decline. Most poignantly, worn grooves in the wooden floorboards have been kept, a powerful testament to the many people who passed through and left a physical imprint in the synagogue.
Awards & Honors
In 1996, the United States Department of the Interior designated the Eldridge Street Synagogue a National Historic Landmark, the highest form of landmark designation. The Museum also gained recognition of the synagogue from the New York State Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation, and the City of New York for its architectural beauty, its significance as part of the American immigrant experience, and its revitalization as a vital heritage center for people of all backgrounds.
The Museum’s meticulous 20-year restoration of the Eldridge Street Synagogue was the recipient of major awards and honors:
- National Trust for Historic Preservation’s 2008 Preservation Honor Award
- Metropolitan Chapter of the Victorian Society in America Restoration Award
- Municipal Art Society’s Masterwork Award for New York City’s Best Restoration Project
- New York Landmarks Conservancy Lucy G. Moses Preservation Award
- New York State Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation Project Achievement Award
- Preservation League of New York’s Restoration Award
- American Association of Museums’ 2008 Gold MUSE Award for Interactive Installation
- Architecture’s Ten Best of 2008, The New Yorker
- 2008 Top Ten Designs, New York Magazine
Learn more from the people who participated in the synagogue restoration: stained-glass artisan Ray Clagnan of The Gil Studio, paint maven Jeff Greene of Evergreene Painting Studios, and lighting specialist Dawn Ladd of Aurora Lampworks.