A Window to the Soul: Architect Deborah Gans Discusses her Enduring Contribution to the Museum at Eldridge Street

Deborah Gans and Kiki Smith stand beneath the completed East window at the Museum at Eldridge Street. (Gans Studio Photography) 

Upon entering the beautifully restored sanctuary at the Museum at Eldridge Street, visitors are transported back to the height of the synagogue’s glory. Built in 1887 during the rise of Jewish immigration to the Lower East Side and restored in the 1980’s after a period of neglect and disrepair, the building is a perfect reflection of the past, present, and future of this historic neighborhood. Today, the synagogue’s sanctuary is covered from floor to ceiling in painted patterns and sparkling ornamentations, all twinkling in the shafts of light that emanate from the Museum’s newest and most distinctive feature: the exquisite stained-glass window designed by artist Kiki Smith and architect Deborah Gans. While the restoration of the sanctuary remained faithful to historical accounts of the synagogue’s 19th-century interior, the new window is an intentional departure from the past. It represents a bright and colorful future for both the Museum and the neighborhood.

Designed and installed in 2010, the Kiki Smith and Deborah Gans window is a shining treasure of the Museum and attracts countless art enthusiasts each year. At an open house reception on July 25, we’ll have the pleasure of welcoming Deborah to the Museum to discuss her collaboration with Kiki Smith, her prolific career as an architect, and her connection to the Museum at Eldridge Street. In preparation for her talk, we asked Deborah to answer a couple questions. Have your own questions for Deborah or interested in hearing from her yourself? Join us from 6:00 to 8:00 p.m. on July 25th for the free reception in our historic sanctuary.

Based in Red Hook, Brooklyn, Deborah Gans is the founder and principal architect of Gans Studio. Her firm focuses primarily on architecture, interior design, and urban planning with the mission of creating socially and environmentally responsible architecture for future generations. Gans works with a wide range of artists and firms across New York City and beyond, but her relationships with some colleagues go deeper than others, as she noted while describing her partnership with Kiki Smith on the East window project:

“Besides being a wonderful artist, Kiki is also a great person – generous, open, collaborative, so extremely smart and wise. And of course she has an infallible eye. We were already working together. I was the architect for an addition to her house, which was great fun. And we hope to collaborate again.”

Gans and Smith working together on the East window at the Gil Studio in Brooklyn. (Kate Milford Photography) 

Both New York natives, Deborah and Kiki have been involved with the Museum for many years and have formed a deep connection with the space. (Eight years after Smith envisioned the artistic plan for the monumental window, she worked with the Museum to install a temporary exhibit. Currently spanning all three floors of the Museum, the unique exhibition will be on display until October 10.) Beyond this artistic connection, Gans also feels somewhat personally connected to our building:

“…All of my grandparents were Jewish immigrants from Russia, Poland, or Lithuania – specifically Odessa and Vilna. My grandparents on my mother’s side both lived in New York. I know my grandmother grew up on Eastern Parkway and attended Brooklyn Teachers College. My grandfather attended City College. So it does feel like we might be part of it’s big extended family.”

The striking East window is provocative in a number of ways. On a purely aesthetic level, the window is dazzlingly beautiful. It floods the sanctuary below with soft blue and yellow light. On a more symbolic level, the window exists in a historic space but instead points the Museum towards a brighter future. Most importantly, the window gives the Museum relevance in the contemporary world. Gans reflected on what makes this dichotomy work:

“The window is really an extension of the wall quite literally – meaning the stair and sky move from painted representation on to the window where they are activated by the light. To put it differently, we didn’t add any motifs to the synagogue, because there were already quite enough! The contemporary feel comes from its cutting-edge glass technology, where layers of “stained” glass are adhered to larger plates. Notice there is no lead – just a field painting of color scored with lines of light. This technique, at this scale, had never been executed in the United States before.”

By adhering stained glass fragments together with silicon, the need for lead frames is eliminated, thus allowing more light to pass through the window. (Gans Studio Photography)

Gans describes her work as an architect as part of a continuum of thinking between past and ever-evolving work.” The ideas behind her unique projects are not born in a vacuum, but rather exist together, constantly interacting and supporting each other. While the monumental scale and pioneering technique of the Museum’s window made it a particularly meaningful project, Gans has executed projects for numerous other synagogues. Each one is totally unique and tailored to the community’s needs.

Join Gans on July 25th to hear even more about her art, her process, and her connection to our landmark! Doors open at 6:00 p.m. and Gans will begin her talk at 6:30. An abridged tour of the building will also be offered, beginning at 7:00 p.m. We hope to see you there!

Amelia Geser is a summer intern at the Museum at Eldridge Street. She is in her final year at Grinnell College, studying Art History.

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