There are many things that make the Museum at Eldridge Street unique: the building’s remarkable history and distinctive location, breathtaking interior, and extraordinary restoration story. However, it is not the only impressive example of architectural restoration in Lower Manhattan. Another example, Trinity Church, has been part of New York’s history for more than 300 years; the congregation’s first building was erected 190 years before the Eldridge Street Synagogue opened its doors in 1887. Today, Trinity Church is undergoing a restoration project that is similar to the Eldridge project in some ways, but is also as different as the histories of the two institutions. By examining these two restoration projects, we can see how the values of both organizations are reflected in how the buildings are preserved and reinvigorated over time.
During its 300-year history, Trinity Church has undergone a variety of changes and has occupied a number of different buildings. Trinity Church parish was once comprised of eleven wooden chapels, many of which were destroyed in the Revolutionary War fires of 1776 despite the efforts of bucket brigades who hauled water from the Hudson River in an attempt to save the burning buildings. In 1790, after the chaos of the war had settled, the second Trinity Church was built and became the preferred house of worship for George Washington and other members of his government. However, this iteration of Trinity Church did not last long; it was completely demolished in 1838 when the support beams began to buckle. After the demolition of 1838, Trinity Church was reborn again – this time as one of the first and finest examples of Neo-Gothic architecture in the United States. With a 281-foot high steeple, the church was the tallest building in New York City until 1890. Today, although the church is now dwarfed by skyscrapers and office buildings, it remains on the corner of Broadway and Wall street to this day and is a staple of Lower Manhattan history.
Unlike Trinity Church, the historic building that houses the Museum at Eldridge Street has remained in the same location, and has fortunately remained standing, since 1887. While the story of the historic synagogue is quite different from that of Trinity Church, we understand the struggles that come with maintaining and protecting a historic building in a constantly evolving environment. One hundred years after the Eldridge Street Synagogue first opened, it had fallen into complete disrepair. According to Roberta Brandes Gratz, a founder of the Museum at Eldridge Street, when she first entered the aging building she saw pigeons roosting in the balconies, benches covered with dust, and stained glass windows that had warped or fallen from their decomposing lead frames. If steps were not immediately taken to restore the building, it would have been condemned.
Thus began the Eldridge Street Project. After securing city and state National Historic Landmark status in 1996, a full restoration initiative began to bring the synagogue back to its original glory. Because the goal of the project was for the sanctuary to look as it did when the synagogue opened in 1887, specially trained artisans were commissioned to use the same techniques that would have been used in the early 20th century. No wallpaper was used to cover the peeling and decomposing paint, but rather artisans were called in from all over New York City to replicate the existing motifs by hand with paint and paintbrush, a process that was as painstaking as it was worthwhile.
At Trinity Church, the process to restore the building was, and remains, completely different. Their sanctuary has not reached a comparable point of crisis since 1838, yet they are constantly refurbishing the space to accommodate the active and growing church congregation. In 2018, Trinity Church will begin a new restoration process which will make their space more accessible and welcoming, upgrade technology and infrastructure, update their lighting, and address the paint loss and damage to stained glass windows. Similarly to the Eldridge Street Project, special attention is being paid to maintaining original historic artifacts when possible and grounding projects in historical precedence. Historic fencing and existing light fixtures are being reused whenever possible, and in the increasing cases where objects have to be replaced, continuity is of utmost importance. At both Trinity Church and the Museum at Eldridge Street, the preservation of seemingly small aspects of the buildings, from door frames to light fixtures, keeps these buildings grounded in history even as we breathe new life into them.
Amelia Geser is a summer intern at the Museum at Eldridge Street. She is studying art history and museum studies at Grinnell College.