This blog post was written by Museum intern Lila Norris.
Tomorrow marks a very curious anniversary in Eldridge Street history. Eighty-five years ago, on December 28th, 1934, the Eldridge Street congregants held a big bash for the 50th anniversary of the synagogue. Except it wasn’t exactly the 50th anniversary. And arguably, the story of what happened at that location after the celebration was held is even more interesting than our congregation’s anniversary could ever be. History is complicated, right?
The Eldridge Street Synagogue opened on September 4th, 1887. Which means that at the time of the 1934 celebration, the synagogue was technically only 47 years old. And in case you’re thinking maybe they were celebrating the anniversary of groundbreaking, that date doesn’t match up either; they began construction during late fall of 1886, only 48 years before this celebration. So why did the congregation choose to hold a premature anniversary? Annie Poland, author of the book Landmark of the Spirit, speculates that it was financially motivated. By 1934, the congregation was already struggling. Many long-standing Jewish residents in the neighborhood were moving away, and recent immigration policies had dramatically reduced the number of new immigrants arriving in the city. They were facing challenges that ranged from peeling paint, to broken boilers, to dwindling membership. Aside from daily maintenance of the building, the leadership knew they needed to raise funds to pay off their mortgage, lest they fall further into financial straits and lose their grand building. (Luckily for them and for us, they eventually did pay off that mortgage in 1945 – and hosted another big celebration to mark the occasion.)
So the congregation, likely feeling a little desperate and perhaps a little nostalgic as well, decided to jump the gun and start their 50th anniversary festivities a little early. They sent invitations and compiled a 50th Year Anniversary Souvenir Journal complete with advertisements from city businesses. It was a grand affair and the mood was light, with speeches focusing on the beauty of the synagogue and the importance of it longevity as a place of worship and learning. The repairs needed, the debt, and even the looming possibility of the building’s closure was all left unsaid. Considering how quickly the fortunes of the congregation were falling, this 50th anniversary party could be seen as a last resort to raise funds, or even a last hoorah for the community.
But that night, the congregants celebrated in style, down to their choice of location. The event was held at the Broadway Central Hotel, located just south of Washington Square Park. Why not in the Lower East Side? (Aside from the fact that it wasn’t a neighborhood known for its fancy banquet halls.) The location was likely chosen to encourage those who had moved uptown to attend – suggesting that loyalty to the downtown Jewish community could be expressed in ways other than just daily attendance at shul. Essentially, it was a call to those who had moved on to remember to support their roots.
Originally called Grand Central Hotel when it opened in 1870, the Broadway Central Hotel’s story gets a lot more interesting than hosting one dubiously planned 50th anniversary party. Designed by architect Henry Engelbert, the time of its opening it was one of the most lavishly built and impressively furnished hotels in the United States. By the early 20th-century, it had become a destination for New York’s high society. Even in the 1930s, it was an impressive location for the congregation’s anniversary banquet and would have given the celebration and added sense of luxury.
But time marched on and the hotel and its surrounding neighborhood experienced a decline similar to that of Eldridge Street’s. It came to be seen as stuffy and old fashioned and its popularity declined throughout the 20th century. By the 1960s, Broadway Central was a seedy and inexpensive hotel; instead of a hub for high society social events it became a watering hole for drug use and crime. Over time, neglect caused the hotel to become unhygienic and nearly unlivable.
Throughout the 1970s the quality and safety of the building deteriorated even further. Residence complained to the city about the conditions, describing cracks and holes in the structure, even describing the groans and creaks the building was making – almost to serve as a warning to what would eventually come.
On the evening of August 3rd, 1973, tragedy struck. A massive section of the iconic hotel collapsed in on itself, spilling debris and rubble onto Broadway. In a New York Times article from August 4th, they said that the collapse was responsible for “injuring at least a dozen persons, halting subways and bringing scores of policemen and firemen to the scene to begin digging in the debris.” They also remarked that at the time there were at least five people present who had not yet been accounted for. Later reports stated that the accident injured many and killed four. (Urban Archive has even more intel on the hotel site and its long history, including some great historic photos during the heydey.)
This incident marks a tragic decline to a piece of iconic lower Manhattan history, and a dramatic footnote the celebration held there in 1934. As the city changed throughout the 20th century, even landmarks and neighborhood staples struggled to keep themselves afloat. This is a story we know all too well at Eldridge Street. So it’s easy to see why a desperate congregation might fudge history a bit and host their anniversary banquet a few years early. The stakes were high. And it is perhaps the funds raised on that exactly night that helped the congregation pay off their mortgage and kept the space intact and upright until the Eldridge Street Project could intervene in the 1980s. This almost-50th anniversary could be one of the factors that allows us to enjoy the Museum today.
Lila Norris is a sophomore Anthropology major at Eugene Lang College of Liberal Arts at the New School.