The Herter Brothers: Architects of Eldridge Street
By Sara Lowenburg
When I am leading tours at Eldridge Street, I love to share that this synagogue was built by the Herter Brothers, two German Catholic architects who had never built a synagogue before! Beyond that fact, I did not know much more about them, but I have always been curious to learn more about their story.
We are privileged at the Museum at Eldridge Street to have many visitors with personal connections to the history of the Lower East Side and this synagogue. I was very excited to hear that one of our recent visitors was Dr. Matthew Cuddeback, the great-the grandson of the younger brother, Franz Herter!
I was eager to connect with him to learn more about their story and what it might add to my tours. Through a series of phone and email conversations, Dr. Cuddeback shared with me his knowledge of family lore and wealth of resources, and together we have uncovered exciting new information about the architects of this beautiful synagogue.
Franz and Peter Herter emigrated from Germany in 1884, just two years before they secured the contract to build the Eldridge Street Synagogue! They were born in the small town of Alfter, Germany and probably studied architecture nearby at the University of Bonn. While there, it is possible that they were exposed to the architecture of the synagogues in nearby Cologne, which may have served as inspiration for Eldridge Street.
Once in New York, the Herter Brothers quickly became successful tenement builders. In 1892, they were praised in The Real Estate Record and Builders’ Guide as “educated builders.” The article goes on to explain, “Herter Bros., the architects, have within the past few years erected a number of the most improved class of tenements…They are well lighted and ventilated and contain the best plumbing.” It celebrates their work as a significant upgrade from the over-crowded, poor conditions that Lower East Siders were accustomed to.
Today, you can still see several of the Herter Brothers’ tenement buildings throughout the Lower East Side. They are immediately recognizable by the Stars of David that cover the facades, which echoed the decorations of the Eldridge Street Synagogue and came to serve as their trademark.
Although they were perhaps best known for their work as tenement builders, the Herter Brothers’ career extended far beyond the scope of residential structures. In fact, they submitted several designs for monuments and religious institutions, including the Soldiers’ and Sailors’ Monument in Grand Army Plaza, Brooklyn, and the Cathedral of St. John the Divine.
Within New York, they were involved in the design of St. Joseph Catholic Church in West Harlem and were even in talks to build a synagogue for Beth Hamedrash Hagadol.
I found this discovery especially intriguing because Beth Hamedrash Hagadol was originally part of the same congregation as Kahal Adath Jeshurun of the Eldridge Street Synagogue. The two split after a clash over the election of the congregation’s president in 1859. In 1888, less than a year after the Eldridge Street Synagogue opened, The Real Estate Record and Builders’ Guide announced that the Herter Brothers would be designing a synagogue at 70 Willet Street, which, like Eldridge Street, would be “in the Moorish style, with brick, stone and terra cotta.”
It seems that the structure never came to fruition, as Beth Hamedrash Hagadol instead remained in a converted church building on Norfolk Street, which is still standing today. Nevertheless, the fact that they attempted to secure a similar contract with the Herter Brothers less than a year after the completion of Eldridge Street suggests that this synagogue was received favorably even by rivaling congregations. The Herter Brothers’ aesthetic, it seems, was one that congregations sought when envisioning their own synagogue designs.
During one of our conversations, Dr. Cuddeback described the Herter Brothers’ career as “a meteor passing through the sky,” both incredibly successful and short-lived. They made a noticeable impact on the skyline of the Lower East Side, but within about ten years, they were no longer working together.
In 1895, Franz (Frank) Herter took out an advertisement without his brother in The Real Estate Record and Builders’ Guide, describing himself as “formerly Herter Bros.”
Franz Herter later designed the rectory for St. Nicholas church on E. 2nd street, which is still standing today and exhibits many similar design elements to Eldridge Street.
The brevity of their partnership, though, perhaps only makes the Eldridge Street Synagogue more unique, as it proved to be not only the first but in fact the only synagogue they built!