Faith, Hope and Chutzpah: Celebrating 129 Years on Eldridge Street

This Saturday, November 14, 2015, will mark the 129th anniversary of the laying of the cornerstone for the Museum at Eldridge Street’s landmark home, the Eldridge Street Synagogue.

On that date back in 1886, a community of Jewish immigrants gathered for a lavish celebration that included Lower East Side and uptown politicians, sheriffs, judges and educators, both Christian and Jewish.  But all that remains of the festivities are tantalizingly brief newspaper accounts.  What we do have, of course, is the cornerstone itself, and the magnificent building that sits atop it, finished just a year later.   And in the Museum’s archives, we can find clues to how that all came to happen.

Deeds from 1886 tell us that the congregation bought three lots on narrow Eldridge Street, allowing enough space to build a grand new house of worship with space on either side to let the light in though the dozens of stained glass windows included in the plan for the new synagogue.

1886 land deed (lot 12)-1

Franz Herter and family


We know that our building’s architects were Peter and Frank Herter, recent immigrants from Germany, who had never before built a house of worship.  These Catholic immigrants would later build several churches, but never again a synagogue.  A descendant shared this photograph of Frank Herter and his family.



And we know from this drawing made in 1886 that the original plan for the façade was followed very closely.


1886 drawing of the facade of the Eldridge Street Synagogue. Collection of the Museum of the City of New York.

The firm of R.H. Casey carried out the actual construction.  The new synagogue was built in less than a year at a cost of $91,907.61—roughly equivalent to $25 million today. This builder was experienced in church construction.

rh casey bill 18880001

As seen in the 1886 drawing of the synagogue’s facade, seven finials in the form of Stars of David were added to the building’s roofline.  The original, heavy and corroded cast iron finials were found in the synagogue as the building was being restored.

cast iron finial

These objects are part of our orientation exhibition at the Museum at Eldridge Street and have helped us tell the story of the Eldridge Street Synagogue, which stands today, 129 years after the cornerstone was laid, as a testament to the faith hope and chutzpah of the congregant’s immigrant founders.

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