Behind the Restoration of the Eldridge Street Synagogue – With Museum Deputy Director Amy Stein-Milford

With the Eldridge Street Synagogue so beautifully restored, it is easy to forget just what a monumental effort it was to restore this 1887 building.  Here Museum Deputy Director Amy Stein-Milford shares the ethos behind the synagogue restoration and points out places you will not want to miss on your next visit here.

Amy Stein-Milford in front of Museum at Eldridge Street/Eldridge Street Synagogue

Amy Stein-Milford in front of Museum at Eldridge Street/Eldridge Street Synagogue

We believe buildings tell stories. While our synagogue had one heck of an opening in 1887 –crowds on the street, policeman on horseback to keep order, a star cantor – there are many chapters to its story. Here at the Museum we share the experience of the synagogue’s immigrant founders, and the pride they felt in establishing this great house of worship. But we also share the story of later generations, including those here during times of struggle and decline, as well as the community who more recently participated in the building’s rediscovery and renewal. All these people left their mark on the building and if you look closely you can discover their stories.

This deteriorated panel of lath and plaster is testament to harder times at the Eldridge Street Synagogue.

This deteriorated panel of lath and plaster is testament to harder times at the Eldridge Street Synagogue.

We left elements that reveal the passage of time. One of my favorite places in the main sanctuary is the rawest – an exposed panel of lath and plaster in the women’s gallery. This is what much of the sanctuary looked like before the restoration. Now it’s a powerful reminder of a time of decline in the building’s history and just how easily this magnificent structure could have been lost.

 

The ball of the vestibule chandelier before restoration.

The ball of the chandelier before restoration.

Lighting Vestibule Chandelier restored cropped

After restoration, with its decorative glass shades

We salvaged as much of the original building fabric as possible. When you step into the Eldridge Street Synagogue, you are immersed in an authentically restored 19th century building. Much of what you are looking at is original. The wood on the ark, bimah (reader’s platform) and pews, the brass lighting fixtures, and more than 80 percent of the synagogue’s luminous stained-glass – all original. Dawn Ladd of Aurora Lampworks, who oversaw the lighting restoration, is particularly proud of her work on the fixture pictured here. Another client would have told her it was too costly and time-consuming to replace. But here the mandate was to restore and save as much as possible. You can see the fully restored chandelier on the right, with its golden ball looking beautiful.

A building like a person can have a heart. Look closely at this painted design, located in a ceiling dome, to find the heart of the Eldridge Street Synagogue.

A building like a person can have a heart. Look closely at this painted design, located in a ceiling dome, to find the heart of the Eldridge Street Synagogue.

We followed the hand of the original artisan. Built in 1887, the Eldridge Street Synagogue was designed by hand, not by computer. In fact, if you look closely, you can find traces of the original artisans’ handiwork, particularly in the sanctuary’s painted designs. Sometimes they missed the line of the stencil pattern. One even painted in a heart where all of the other shapes were spades. Today’s artisans clearly could have worked from computer generated drawings and created a more “perfect” looking finish. Instead they followed closely the lines of the original artisan – even if the original painter made a mistake! The result? An exuberant yet intimate interior that will forever be unique.

Something old, something new.  While almost everything you see in the sanctuary is original, there is one striking exception: the stained glass window designed by artist Kiki Smith and architect Deborah Gans. Measuring 16 feet in diameter, weighing 6,000 pounds (about the weight of an SUV), and made up of over 1,200 pieces of glass, the window is one of the most spectacular features of the Eldridge Street Synagogue. For me it evokes both the nighttime sky and the primordial sea.

Kiki Smith and Deborah Gans' window is the only contemporary element in the sanctuary of the Eldridge Street Synagogue. Photo: Peter Aaron/OTTO

Kiki Smith and Deborah Gans’ window is the only contemporary element in the sanctuary of the Eldridge Street Synagogue. Photo: Peter Aaron/OTTO

The original window that hung above the ark was damaged and replaced with clear glass blocks in 1944 at a time when the congregation was diminishing in size and wealth and could not afford to replace it with stained glass. For the Museum, this presented an opportunity to commission a new design and thereby mark a new chapter in the building’s history – its glorious restoration and renewal.

Adding a new element to a historic site is a bold move, and one the Museum did not take lightly. But without documentation of what the original rose window looked like, the Museum opted to commission something new. We selected Kiki and Deborah’s design because it was beautiful and innovative, yet deeply respectful of the synagogue’s design, history and spirit. My hope is that 120 years from now, the Eldridge Street Synagogue will be standing proudly in its ever-evolving neighborhood, and the window will be yet one more chapter in its long and continuing history.

Join Amy on January 2, 2015 at 1 pm for an architectural tour of the synagogue that will look at these and other significant places in the synagogue. 

What is your favorite spot in the Eldridge Street Synagogue?

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