Recycled Places of Worship: The Adaptation of Space on the Lower East Side
By Emma Friedlander
The story of the Lower East Side is one of constant, rapid change. Although this neighborhood was once the center of Jewish American life, for the most part, the shuls and kosher stores that marked this Jewish presence have now vanished. Today, the area is characterized by its abundance of dumpling shops, signs in Mandarin, and vegan shoe stores. However, as the human landscape changes, some rare buildings stand as steadfast reminders of former communities.
New immigrant groups to New York City have rarely held the financial or spatial resources needed to erect new buildings (the Eldridge Street Synagogue being a major exception). In most cases, these communities have instead reappropriated already-standing buildings, left behind by previous groups in the area that had since dwindled. A great number of turn-of-the-century Jewish synagogues were renovated churches which had been deserted when their Christian congregants left the neighborhood. Similarly, as the area’s Jewish community dissipated over the twentieth century, other faith groups have adapted synagogues into Christian and Buddhist places of worship.
As Stars of David are covered with crosses and joined by statues of Buddha, many consider these changes a signifier of the loss of Jewish culture in the neighborhood. But I think these transformations are better viewed as the strongest symbol of cultural interaction. The adaptation of these spaces by new arrivals demonstrates the Lower East Side’s historic role as the entryway to America, for all people.
One of the strongest examples of a church renovated into a synagogue is the Bialystoker Synagogue. The Museum at Eldridge Street summer interns were recently given a tour of this historic building by Rabbi Zvi Romm. Erected in 1826, the structure was originally the Willett Street Methodist Church. As is the tendency in Lower East Side history, the original church members probably gradually moved out of the neighborhood over the 19th century — it’s likely that the space had been deserted for decades when the Bialystoker congregation, almost exclusively hailing from Bialystok, Poland, bought the building in 1905.
Rabbi Zvi Romm explained that when Jews were first moving to America, they had to seriously question whether or not the use of former churches complied with Rabbinic law. Once rabbinic authorities in Poland confirmed that there was nothing wrong with the Beth Hamedrash Hagodol congregation purchasing the Norfolk Street Baptist Church in 1885, the conversion of churches into synagogues became the norm.
Currently, the interior of the Bialystoker Synagogue is restored to appear as it would have in 1947. There are few reminders of the building’s pre-synagogue history, with the exception of its interior structure, and a mysterious hidden room in the women’s sanctuary, which is rumored to have hidden runaway slaves on the Underground Railroad.
Still, we were surprised by how aesthetically different this synagogue is from the Eldridge Street Synagogue. Paintings of landscapes, animals, and Jerusalem adorn the walls and ceiling. I was most struck by the enormous ark, which features ornate carvings of traditional Eastern European Jewish imagery, like lions and eagles. Today, the Bialystoker Synagogue maintains an unusually strong and dedicated congregation, largely due to its proximity to the remaining Jewish population of the Lower East Side.
Another example is the Sixth Street Community Synagogue, which was adapted from St. Mark’s Evangelical Lutheran Church after the 1905 notorious General Slocum disaster, wherein 1,021 members of the church’s congregation tragically drowned. This catastrophe marked the decline of the church and largely of the Lower East Side German immigrant population. Jewish immigrants, however, gratefully revitalized these deserted spaces.
As the tides of history turned, and the Jewish population advanced uptown and into the other boroughs, the cycle of renovation continued. Today, much of the previously Jewish neighborhood is now Chinatown. The former Pike Street Synagogue, which now houses a Buddhist temple as well as retail and residential spaces, most clearly represents these demographic changes. Constructed in 1903, the building is best recognized by the imposing ground-level staircases that lead up to the main entrance, as well as the rounded windows that are typical of synagogues designed at the turn of the century. These distinguished features, along with the overall neoclassical style of the building and the Buddha statue that stands imposingly at its entrance, make this structure hard to miss.
Much like Jewish immigrants converted everything from churches to tenement buildings to storefronts into synagogues, the population of Chinatown has also been innovative in finding places of worship. One notable example is the Pu Zhao Si at 20 Eldridge Street, right next door to the museum, which was originally built in the 1840s as a fire house.
The Forsyth Street Synagogue, now lglesia Adventista del Séptimo Dia de Delancey [Delancey Seventh Day Adventist Church], is interesting in that it was built as a church, converted into a synagogue, and today again serves as a church, now for the neighborhood’s hispanic community.
This striking structure was built in 1890 by renowned architect J. Cleveland Cady, famed for designing the American Museum of Natural History and the old Metropolitan Opera House. The original church did not last long, as the Jewish Congregation Poel Zedek Anshei Illiya purchased the building by 1900. The shul shrewdly invested in a cluster of retail establishments on the lower level of the building. When exploring the space, I was surprised to encounter storefront signs that appear to allude to this period, though these placards have since been barred off.
The structure on the corner of Forsyth and Delancey is perhaps most notable in that its stained glass and other ornamentation still feature Stars of David. Although crucifixes have been placed over some of these stars, the proximity of these two religious symbols appears to signify a respect of the space’s past worshippers and the coming together of communities throughout history.
Past synagogues on the Lower East Side have been used in a plethora of inventive ways. One notable example is the pastel pair of synagogues on 80 Forsythe Street and 87 Eldridge Street, which were renovated into studios by artist couple Pat Passlof and Milton Resnick in the 1960s. Other turn-of-the-century synagogues are falling into disrepair, while still more, such as the Eldridge Street Synagogue and Anshe Chesed Synagogue (now the Angel Orensanz Center), have been repurposed into new, innovative spaces. Although it may be sad to see semblances of Jewish Lower East Side vanish or alter, it is also comforting to acknowledge that through these changes, historic buildings may remain relevant in the twenty-first century. The Jewish wave of immigration may have ended decades ago, but its mark upon the Lower East Side will always be felt.