Beyond the Façade

Vestibule

Vestibules are places of transition and certainly the shift from crowded Lower East Side streets to the Eldridge Street Synagogue’s magnificent interior would have been dramatic. When early congregants climbed the front stairs and entered the synagogue’s vestibule, they experienced a true sense of sanctuary. Left behind were the crowded, dirty and smelly streets, teeming with immigrants, pushcarts and horse-drawn wagons. Pausing in the vestibule, congregants might use one of two marble sinks – a luxury at the time – to wash off the grime of the streets, and perhaps take a moment to prepare for prayer. This space may even have seemed large and open to congregants – it is about the size of an average tenement apartment – but it would be nothing compared to what was in store when they opened the inner doors of the vestibule and entered the sanctuary.

Floor

c. 1920s

Unglazed colored ceramic tile

Approximately 8 feet wide x 24 feet long

The mosaic-tiled floor of the vestibule may be recognizable to anyone familiar with New York buildings of the early 20th century.

 

Inexpensive and easy to clean, colorful mosaic tile was the quintessential tenement hallway floor, and was also found on the floors of candy stores, restaurants, bars and drug stores. This floor is not original to our 1887 building, but reflects the congregation’s need to repair and restore on the cheap in the 1920s.

Marble Sinks

1887; restored 1986-2007

Marble with metal fixtures

24 inches wide x 21 inches deep x 6.25 inches high 


Two marble sinks, one on each side of the vestible, served both a spiritual and a practical purpose for the congregation. They were used for the Blessing of the Cohanim, a religious ritual practiced on certain Jewish holidays. They also served a mundane purpose, allowing worshippers to wash off the grime of dirty city streets in preparation for prayer. In the synagogue’s earliest days, most congregants would not have had the pleasure of running water in their homes, and using these sinks to wash their hands would have been a luxury.

Marble Tablets

Installed 1887, restored 1987-2007

White marble with incised and gilded inscriptions

114 inches high x 40 inches wide

 

Two grand marble slabs inscribed with the names and dates of congregational leaders greet you as you enter the vestibule. These are memorial plaques. The tablet on the left (shown here) lists the names of men who had important roles in founding and leading the congregation, such as banker Sender Jarmulowsky and kosher sausage manufacturer Isaac Gellis; both had instrumental roles in raising the funds to establish the synagogue.

 

The tablet on the right (not shown) honors women active in the congregation, including Miriam Hutkoff, wife of founder Nathan Hutkoff. The wording is in Hebrew, English, Yiddish, and a combination of the languages, illustrating the congregation’s gradual assimilation into American life, while keeping older traditions.

 

Although many surfaces in the building are painted to look marble, the real thing is used very sparingly. The use of such an impressive, expensive material and the prominent placement of the tablets in the entryway is a lasting testament to the early leaders of the Eldridge Street Synagogue.

Chandelier

Original design, 1887; restored 1986-2007

Brass with etched glass shades

Diameter, approximately 40 inches 

The pink glass shades on this elaborate chandelier cast a warm, welcoming glow as congregants enter the synagogue. This brass fixture is the only one in the synagogue that uses glass shades lined in pink rather than in green.

 

This fixture became severely deteriorated during the building’s period of decline. According to the Museum’s lighting restorer, Dawn Ladd of Aurora Lampworks, a less meticulous restoration project would not have taken on the task of restoring such a damaged fixture. Because of the Museum’s dedication to restoration and original detail, this chandelier was salvaged and continues to be one of the most striking features of the vestibule.

Sanctuary

Imagine what it would have felt like for a poor immigrant congregant to leave the grimy streets of the Lower East Side and enter this sanctuary. The space is huge, more than 3,000 square feet. The central dome rises 50 feet above the floor, and there is seating for 750 worshippers. Sunlight streams through dozens of stained glass windows. Painted decoration covers every imaginable surface and polished wood shines. This is the spiritual center of the Eldridge Street Synagogue. In the 1950s, this sanctuary was closed off when the congregation could no longer afford to maintain it. Two decades later, it was rediscovered by preservationists and others interested in Jewish history and culture, and in the 1980s, the Eldridge Street Project (precursor to the Museum) was founded to oversee its restoration. Today it shines as it did when it first opened in 1887.

Paint Techniques

1894, revised 1918, restored 1986-2007

Original and restoration paints and glazes on plaster

 

The sanctuary was painted using a variety of techniques, all achieving maximum benefit at minimum cost. The shell-topped niches, windows covered with fine fabric curtains and golden medallions that adorn either side of the ark are painted in a technique called trompe l’oiel, French for “trick the eye,” used to mimic the appearance of something three-dimensional. Faux finishes were used to make walls and columns look like marble. Stencils were employed to trace folk braiding, stars, scrolls and the details of a coffered ceiling across plain plaster walls, arches and domes. Artisans then painted in the patterns by hand, occasionally ignoring the plan and contributing touches of their own. The overall effect is both grand and touchingly personal.

Paint Schemes

1894, revised 1918, restored 1986-2007

Original and restoration paints and glazes on plaster

 

When the doors of the new synagogue opened in 1887, the sanctuary walls were covered with sober light grey and taupe paint. No money remained for more elaborate decoration. By 1894, the congregation approved a number of improvements to their building, including a brand new paint scheme. Artisans were hired to hand-paint virtually every surface, creating a design very similar to what we see in the sanctuary today. In 1918, several years after the building’s gas lighting fixtures were converted to electricity, painters were brought in again. This time, they maintained the decorative designs, but created a brighter color scheme to suit the newly-brightened space. By the 1940s, the paint was again in need of sprucing up, but the struggling congregation no longer had the funds to restore the elaborate designs by hand. Instead, they chose solid pink, cream and blue to paint over the fading decoration in the sanctuary.

 

During the restoration, it was decided to preserve the third of these four paint schemes, the one meant for electric lighting, which is still how the space is seen by visitors. This meant painstakingly removing the 1940s coats of paint, and retouching and reproducing the 1918 designs and colors. The first and second layers are still present underneath!

Wood Elements in the Sanctuary

Original to the 1887 design, restored 1986-2007

Walnut, oak and pine

The different woods used in the sanctuary create a hierarchy of importance, descending from walnut to oak to pine, and linked to the importance of the archictural element. Dark walnut, costly and elaborately carved, was used for the elements of the sanctuary that are the focal point during services: the ark (aron kodesh) on the eastern wall where Torah scrolls are kept; the reader’s platform (bimah), at the center of the sanctuary, where the Torah is read; and the cantor’s stand (amud), where the chazzan, a trained musician, leads the congregation in beautifully sung prayer.

 

Oak was used for the benches. This strong, attractive and durable wood has survived use by generations of congregants. The design of the pews is simple and functional, adorned only with a trefoil cutout at the top on each end facing the aisles. This decorative touch is likely an indication that the benches were purchased from a church supply catalog, since a trefoil is a common symbol of the Christian holy trinity. On the back of each bench is a shelf that can be propped up to hold a prayer book. Below, in front of each seat, is a cubby to store a congregant’s prayer shawl, prayer book and other essentials.

 

The congregation saved money where it could, using expensive materials sparingly. The floors are made of pine planks, an inexpensive material that is softer and less durable than either oak or walnut. Over the course of 125 years, these floors have developed deep indentations in front of every bench in the sanctuary, the result of shokeling, as congregants swayed forward and back as they prayed.

Chandelier

Original design, 1887; restored 1986-2007

Brass with etched glass shades

Diameter, approximately 8 feet

The sanctuary was originally lit by hundreds of gas jets, including 75 that emanated from this huge brass Victorian chandelier which is suspended from the central dome. At that time, most of the synagogue’s members would have lived in dark rooms lit only by lamps fueled by lard, kerosene, whale oil, turpentine or coal, which gave dim light and, often, unpleasant odors. The prospect of a dazzlingly lit space would have been an unimaginable luxury. The chandelier’s delicate green glass shades originally faced upward, each surrounding a gas flame. When the Eldridge Street congregants decided to modernize in 1907 and electrify the sanctuary, the chandelier was wired and its shades were inverted to allow more light to reach worshippers below. It is likely that the decision to electrify was also made to attract new members to the congregation. The bare bulbs installed around the ten commandment tablets above the ark were also a way to flaunt this new technology.

 

The restoration of this chandelier was a grand undertaking. Guided by the principle that an imperfect original was better than a perfect replacement, the badly damaged and corroded fixture was disassembled, and its pieces cleaned and saved whenever possible. The historic green flower-shaped shades were carefully preserved, as well. Researchers at Aurora Lampworks, the company that restored all the synagogue’s lighting, were able to find the workshop in France where the shades had originally been made, but the technology to reproduce them has been lost.

East Window

Design by Kiki Smith and Deborah Gans, 2009, installed 2010

Acid-etched Lamberts antique flash glass adhered with silicone lamination in steel frame

Diameter, 16 feet

The east window is the only 21st century addition to the historic Eldridge Street Synagogue. When the building opened in 1887, a stained-glass rose window occupied this spot, but over time, the original window’s wooden frame weakened. In the 1940s, it was replaced with practical and economical glass blocks, set into the circular space in four tablet-shaped columns.


After the restoration of the synagogue was completed in 2007, these blocks remained in stark contrast to their ornate surroundings, leaving the Museum to confront a final restoration decision. Should the glass blocks remain as a reminder of a chapter in the building’s long history? Could the original rose window be recreated when no photographs or plans had been found to indicate its original design? Or should a new design be commissioned? In 2009, the Museum’s board of directors opted for the new, and invited a group of contemporary artists to submit concepts. A design by artist Kiki Smith and architect Deborah Gans was selected, fabricated by a team of artisans, and installed in the fall of
2010.


With its golden stars arrayed across a field of blue, the window’s design mirrors original paint schemes on the adjoining sanctuary walls and in the domes above. This new east window breathes new life into the sanctuary, both honoring the original design and ushering the restored building into the 21st century. The way it was made unites old and new as well. Using modern laminate technologies, more than 1,200 pieces of colored antique Lamberts glass were joined together with silicone atop aplate glass base. Not a single piece of lead holds the window together.As Deborah Gans explained, “What would have been lines of lead are now lines of light.” The panels were then installed in a heavy steel frame weighing more than 4,000 pounds. The central Star of David is in three-dimensional cast glass. The final effect is painterly, pulsating, compelling.

Rose Windows

Original design, 1887; restored 1986-2007

Leaded stained glass with modern additions

Diameter, approximately 16 feet

A rose window in a synagogue? This Gothic architectural feature is usually associated with Christian cathedrals, but was borrowed by the synagogue’s architects, Peter and Francis Herter. As recent German immigrants who were Catholic, they drew elements from architectural styles they had seen in their homeland and from new synagogues and churches in New York City. They melded together Gothic, Romanesque and Moorish elements, adding Jewish touches to create a wholly unique design for Eldridge Street.

 

From the outside, the rose window automatically signals a house of worship and the Stars of David in its stained glass identify the building as a synagogue. Inside, the grand scale of the rose window complements the other stained glass panels and gives the vast interior space of the sanctuary a focal point on its western wall.

 

During the restoration process, each segment of this window was removed, cleaned, releaded, reconstructed and reset into its heavy stone frame.

Stained Glass Panels

Original design, 1887; restored, 1986-2007

Leaded stained glass with modern additions

Window shown: 88 inches x 54 inches; dimensions of other windows vary

 

Stained glass is a classically sacred element that gives the sanctuary a grand and holy atmosphere. Light streams in, filtered through the colored panels, but congregants are not able to see outside. For a synagogue in the middle of the hectic, crowded Lower East Side, this would have been essential in cultivating a sense of sanctuary and a readiness for prayer.

 

The 67 stained glass panels in the sanctuary are arrayed in sets: rectangular windows along the sides of the sanctuary; arched windows around the balcony and in the stairwells; keyhole windows across the façade; and roundels in the vestibule. Their design consists solely of Stars of David and layered, intersecting circles, punctuated by thick cast-glass “jewels.” Although the pattern for all windows in each set is identical, artisans alternated the colors in each panel to achieve a remarkably varied but unified effect.

 

Restorers were able to find and reuse eighty percent of the original colored shapes, replacing the balance with similar glass. Each panel was removed, a rubbing of its design was made, glass was cleaned, replaced and releaded, so that visitors today may experience the effect of the windows as congregants did when they entered the sanctuary for the first time in 1887.

Balcony

Climbing the stairs to the synagogue’s balcony brings visitors closer to the stars. Literally. Here the celestial painted patterns of the sanctuary’s walls can be viewed up close, as can the giant rose window. The balcony also affords a spectacular dead-on view of the new east window designed by Kiki Smith and Deborah Gans. Built as seating for the women of the Orthodox congregation, this large gallery has seats arranged in tiers, reaching across the back of the nave above the side bays of the sanctuary to the eastern wall. The design of this space reveals the congregation’s negotiation between Americanization and Orthodoxy. At Eldridge, the women’s gallery is open to the space below, which was a bit of a shock for worshippers used to Eastern European synagogues where curtains and grille work divide seating for men and women. According to an 1892 account, soon after the synagogue opened, a “pierced curtain” was added along the edge of the balcony to “seclude Hebrew femininity from the disturbing gaze of the masculinity.” But this attempt at further separation did not work “for the simple reason that deft hands draw them aside or throw them up, and vision is only supposedly obstructed.”

Exposed Lath Wall

Segment of original 1887 wall left unrestored in 2007

 

A glimpse of a less glamorous chapter of the building’s history is revealed by a section of the balcony wall that has been left unrestored. Here layers of lath, plaster and brick are visible, revealing the bones of the building and offering a unique view of what is usually hidden behind a finished plaster wall. Century-old pieces of horsehair, used to bind the plaster, can be found as well. In Judaism there is a tradition of leaving a small section of a synagogue unfinished in memory of the Temple in Jerusalem that was destroyed. This exposed lath wall has been left as a reminder of what can happen to a building over time, as well as a testimony of how far the synagogue has come, illustrating the full cycle of creation, decline and rebirth.

Women’s Chandelier

Date unknown, probably late 19th – early 20th century

Blown glass and crystal electrified fixture

Diameter, approximately 36 inches

 

This delicate crystal chandelier, which was originally a gas fixture, is certainly not part of the original 1887 design of the synagogue. All the other fixtures in the sanctuary are brass, and the small scale of this fixture does not quite suit the space. So where did it come from? There are no records of its purchase or installation. Most likely, it came from a congregant’s home where it would have graced a parlor or dining room. Perhaps it was donated when the women of the congregation requested more light in their seating area. It has been preserved as an example of the synagogue’s journey through time, and the influence of its congregants – both male and female – on the look and feel of their house of worship.

Stairway

Stairway

1887, rebuilt 1986-2007

Oak

In an Orthodox synagogue, women attending services sit separately from men. At Eldridge Street, this meant mounting this narrow, winding staircase. Women, often with children in tow, climbed the 30 steps to a balcony high above the sanctuary floor. Here they could hear the proceedings below, keep an eye on the young ones, and not be a distraction to the men of the congregation.

 

Originally, there were two staircases, one at each end of the vestibule, reached by the “women’s entrances” at the far sides of the building’s entryway. By the time the synagogue restoration began, the northern staircase had collapsed. The southern stairs were deteriorated as well. An early visitor recalled steps giving way below his feet.

 

During the restoration, as the southern staircase was taken apart to be reinforced and rebuilt, each piece was tagged so that it would be returned to its proper place. Missing pieces were salvaged from its fallen twin. Once the remains of the northern staircase were removed, an elevator was installed in its place.