From the Archives: Saving a Lower East Side Landmark

By Museum Deputy Director, Amy Stein-Milford

While conducting research for a new exhibition that will open at the Museum this spring, I can across an article from the 1970s. It describes the Eldridge Street Synagogue when it was at its most precarious.  It includes an interview with Professor Gerard Wolfe, who was then writing a book on the synagogues of the Lower East Side. He descibes:”When I got to the vestibule on the main floor, I found the doors of the sanctuary warped shut. I pulled them open and stepped inside, and my hair stood on end. It was like the Twilight Zone, like going into the past…Forty years of accumulated dust covered the pews.” This photo here documents that period in the synagogue’s history.

 

Eldridge Street Synagogue, unrestored. Photo 1980s.

Eldridge Street Synagogue, unrestored. Photo 1980s.

 

It was soon after this that the Eldridge Street Project, precursor to the Museum at Eldridge Street, was born. Founded by preservationist Roberta Brandes Gratz, the Project’s mission was simple: to save and restore the synagogue. An early fundraising video (beautifully created by filmmaker Leonard Majzlin) features the late actor Geraldine Fitzgerald, in which she intones”to lose this building is to diminish us all.” In a truly grassroots effort, more than 18,000 people responded to this message over a 20-year period, donating anywhere from $18 to $100 to $1,800 or more. Some people participated in “Clean and Shine Days,” dusting pews, mopping floors, and polishing brass and woodwork.  

 

A "Clean and Shine Day" at the Eldridge Street Synagogue

A “Clean and Shine Day” at the Eldridge Street Synagogue

 

Even the late philanthropist Brooke Astor responded, recognizing the importance of the building within New York City’s cultural landscape and donating $25,000 to restore the synagogue’s rose window.

 

Brooke Astor and Roberta Brandes Gratz

Philanthropist Brooke Astor explores the Eldridge Street Synagogue with Eldridge Street Project, Roberta Brandes Gratz.

 

Today the synagogue has been gloriously restored. The story of the building and the immigrants who built it are shared with thousands every year. “From the Brink of Death to Life Overflowing,” described a New York Times article. But in the women’s balcony an unrestored panel of lath and plaster – bare, raw – recalls the building’s deterioration. It reminds us how easily the synagogue could have been lost.

 

lath and plaster at the Eldridge Street Synagogue

An unrestored panel of lath and plaster at the Eldridge Street Synagogue shows how severely the building had deteriorated.

 

Do you have memories of the Eldridge Street Synagogue before it was restored?

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