A Window to the Soul: Architect Deborah Gans on her Enduring Contribution to Eldridge Street

This piece was adapted from a post originally written in July 2018.

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 massive wave of Jewish immigration to the Lower East Side, it was restored in the 1980s after a period of neglect and disrepair. 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 19th-century interior, the new window is an intentional departure from the past. It represents a bright and vibrant future for both the Museum and the neighborhood.

The 2010 collaboration between the two women was the result of a long relationship and mutual admiration – something that surely aided the project’s success. Now that years have passed since the window’s design and installation, we wanted to hear more about the process behind bringing the window to life. In today’s post, we hear from Brooklyn-based architect Deborah Gans.

Deborah Gans is the founder and principal architect of Gans Studio, based in the Red Hook neighborhood. Her firm focuses primarily on socially and environmentally responsible architecture, interior design, and urban planning. 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. In that time, they 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 that spanned all three floors of the Museum. It was on display spring to fall 2018). 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. It also seems to glitter on a sunny day. On a more symbolic level, the window is a new art piece in a historic space; it points the Museum towards a brighter future. It also gives the Museum relevance in the contemporary art 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.

Although the installation of a new art piece in a historic space often raises questions and concerns, Gans’ and Kiki Smith’s approach to the project left little doubt in the minds of the Museum. By treating the existing visual elements with reverence and consideration, they created space for a new window to enhance its surroundings without detracting from the historic beauty.

Amelia Geser was a summer intern at the Museum at Eldridge Street in 2018. She is a graduate of Grinnell College, studying Art History.

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