Eldridge Street Synagogue Restoration

From its opening in 1887 through the 1920s the Eldridge Street Synagogue remained a popular place of worship. By the 1920s, much of the congregation had dispersed far beyond the Lower East Side, and immigration quotas like the 1924 National Origins Act stemmed the tide of new arrivals to take the place of those who had left. By the 1950s, a depleted but stalwart congregation could no longer afford the repairs needed to maintain the building, or even to heat its sanctuary. They closed off the grand upstairs space and met instead in the street level chapel known as the Bes Madrash. Over the next few decades, the building fell into grave disrepair, with its foundations compromised, small leaks turning into large holes in the roof and stained glass falling to the floor.

In the 1970s, New York University Professor Gerard Wolfe persuaded the congregation’s sexton, Benjamin Markowitz, to let him enter the sanctuary as part of the research for his book, The Synagogues of the Lower East Side. The synagogue was in bad shape. “I cannot forget how my hair stood up and goose pimples arose on my back,” recalls Wolfe. Pigeons roosted in the balcony, and dust blanketed the wood and painted surfaces, and the stained-glass windows were grime-coated and in disrepair.

Hoping to preserve and ultimately restore the building, the journalist and preservationist Roberta Brandes Gratz and attorney William Josephson incorporated the not-for-profit, nonsectarian Eldridge Street Project in 1986. The Project mounted the largest independent restoration not supported or attached to an institution or government agency in New York City. Their dedicated work spanned more than 20 years and cost 20 million dollars.

In restoring Eldridge Street, architects, Jill Gotthelf and Walter Sedovic, specialists in sustainable preservation, helped create a green restoration program. They salvaged historic materials, used recycled and long-lasting materials, and worked locally whenever possible. Together with the stained-glass artisans of Gil Studio, paint specialists from Evergreene Architectural Arts, and lighting experts of Aurora Lampworks, they worked to restore the synagogue to its former grandeur. Watch our restoration video to hear these artisans talk about their remarkable work.

In 2007, the restoration of the Eldridge Street Synagogue was complete and the building became once again the magnificent edifice that had greeted throngs of worshippers 120 years earlier. The restoration was the recipient of major awards and honors, including the National Trust for Historic Preservation’s 2008 Preservation Honor Award, Metropolitan Chapter of the Victorian Society in America Restoration Award, Municipal Art Society’s Masterwork Award for New York City’s Best Restoration Project, New York Landmarks Conservancy Lucy G. Moses Preservation Award, Preservation League of New York’s Restoration Award, The New Yorker’s Architecture’s Ten Best of 2008, and New York Magazine 2008 Top Ten Designs.

In 2010, a new contemporary work of art was added when a stained glass window designed by artist Kiki Smith and architect Debroah Gans was installed on the synagogue’s east wall.

Today, the Museum at Eldridge Street, the successor to the Eldridge Street Project, remains committed to using this building to teach about Lower East Side history, immigration and issues of preservation and restoration.

Discussion Questions

  • What is the difference between a restoration and a renovation or re-creation?
  • What makes a building worth preserving?
  • Is it important to preserve places? Why or why not?
  • What qualities distinguish the highly acclaimed restoration of the Eldridge Street Synagogue?
  • What places do you like to visit? Do you anticipate wanting to visit them 10 years from now? How about in 20 years or even 50 years? Would you want your grandchildren or great grandchildren to be able to visit that place in 100 years? Why or why not?

Classroom Extensions

  • Each year the National Trust for Historic Preservation designates America’s 11 most endangered places. Look at the list and discuss as a class what makes a place “endangered.” Does the class think that these places belong on the list? Are there other places they would like to see there?