Behind the Scenes of our Synagogue Restoration

The "bones" of the Eldridge Street Synagogue; Photo: Peter Aaron/Esto

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

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

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. 

Categories: Art & Architecture, Historic Preservation, History, Lower East Side

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