Artisan Stories: The Restoration of the Eldridge Street Synagogue
The East Window
Awards & Honors
In 1996, the United States Department of the Interior designated the Eldridge Street Synagogue a National Historic Landmark, the highest form of landmark designation. The Museum also gained recognition of the synagogue from the New York State Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation, and the City of New York for its architectural beauty, its significance as part of the American immigrant experience, and its revitalization as a vital heritage center for people of all backgrounds.
Preservation awards and honors include:
- National Trust for Historic Preservation’s 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
- New York State Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation Project Achievement Award
- Preservation League of New York’s Restoration Award
- American Association of Museums’ Gold MUSE Award for Interactive Installation
- Architecture’s Ten Best of 2008, The New Yorker
- 2008 Top Ten Designs, New York Magazine
A LANDMARK ON THE BRINK
“The dust was so thick that you could write your initials on the benches.” Pigeons roosted in the balcony, plaster fell from the walls, and stained glass windows had warped with time. Roberta Brandes Gratz was already an accomplished preservationist when she stepped inside the deteriorating Eldridge Street Synagogue for the first time in the early 1980s. She knew there was no time to waste if the building was to survive. Early investigations showed that emergency stabilization was needed; if no work were done, the building would collapse. Public interest in the building’s fate grew, and by 1986 Gratz had formed the Eldridge Street Project (now the Museum at Eldridge Street) to undertake the massive restoration.
The project was a true grassroots effort. More than 18,000 people from across the country gave their support. Hundreds of volunteers participated in early “Clean and Shine” days, dusting pews and polishing silver. Artisans, preservationists and historians analyzed every element in the building, including stained glass windows, Victorian glass lampshades, oak pews, and hand-painted designs on the walls and ceiling. They referenced the congregation’s minute books and other historical records to piece together the story of the building and its evolution.
Buildings tell stories. This core belief guided the restoration. Rather than present the sanctuary the way it looked on opening day in 1887, the Museum aimed to highlight the architectural elements to tell a story of the building’s use over time. Retaining an element of patina was paramount to the project’s preservationists and artisans. Today, the sanctuary reflects its original grandeur while celebrating the building as a space that was altered, intentionally and unintentionally, over time.
Just like in 1887, your first impression of the sanctuary is one of grandeur and elevation. Upon closer observation, you discover elements that reveal different eras in the building’s history.
A nineteeth-century chandelier wired for electricity tells the story of the congregation’s upgrade from gas lighting in the early 1900s. Bare light bulbs circling the ark’s Ten Commandments tablets were added at this time, and attest to the sense of pride and excitement about the electrified space. Upstairs in the balcony, a panel of exposed lath and plaster is a poignant reminder of the synagogue’s mid-century period of decline. Worn grooves in the pine wood floorboards bear witness to the people who prayed at the synagogue and left their physical imprint on the space.
The Eldridge Street Synagogue was hand-crafted by people and served as a spiritual and metaphorical home for generations of New Yorkers. It was lovingly restored by a new community. The 21st-century restorers aimed to honor the work of the original artisans and congregants. In many cases, they painstakingly following the brush stroke of the original painters or the historic technique of forgotten stained glass artisans.
The 20-year, $20 million restoration was complete in October 2007. By then, the building had earned National Historic and New York City Landmark status. But the Eldridge Street Synagogue had one final addition in store. In 2010, artist Kiki Smith and architect Deborah Gans designed a monumental stained glass window to replace an earlier intervention from the mid-19th century. This stunning artwork is the only contemporary design element in the historic sanctuary. It marks the revitalization of the building for the 21st century, the most recent chapter in a story that is continually evolving.