CB3’s Landmarks Panel Urges Preservation of Fire-Ravaged Beth Hamedrash Hagadol

Image from handout provided by Howard L. Zimmerman Architects.

Image from handout provided by Howard L. Zimmerman Architects.

A structural engineer working for Beth Hamedrash Hagadol says the fire-ravaged synagogue at 60 Norfolk St. is in “dire” condition, and saving even small portions of the Lower East Side landmark will require a lot of effort and more than a little luck. This assessment came during last night’s meeting of Community Board 3’s landmarks committee. The synagogue recently filed a request for demolition after the Department of Buildings determined the remaining structure is unstable.

Thomas McMahon, the synagogue’s consultant/attorney, opened the presentation by summarizing the unfortunate situation in the aftermath of a devastating May 14 fire, allegedly set by teenage boys. The blaze, he said, “was tragic in many ways” and has forced the demolition application because, McMahon explained, “it is really a severely dangerous situation.” The decaying building has been vacant for about a decade. In the days before the fire, said McMahon, the synagogue had been close to reaching a deal with a neighboring property owner, the Chinese American Planning Council, to finally restore the 167-year-old building and to build affordable housing. 

Bryan Chester, a project manager at Howard L. Zimmerman Architects, then guided community board members through a grim report about the building’s current condition. He arrived on the scene the morning after the fire and was on site for about two weeks. The building, said Chester, is so unstable that inspectors were forced to evaluate it from a safe distance (photos and a man lift were used to inspect the facade). “At the end of the day,” he explained, “we weren’t even able to get investigators all the way in to finish the investigation due to the instabilities.” 

“There are certain portions of the building which just cannot be saved,” said Chester. There are other sections “that we are going to do our best to save,” he added, but it won’t be clear what, if anything, can be salvaged until the demolition crews go to work.  

See selected slides from the presentation here: 

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The biggest concern is the stability of the two towers in front of the building. In some spots, said Chester, a single brick is holding up several feet of the tower above it. During the fire, the roof collapsed, taking out a lot of the synagogue’s masonry and ripping apart critical support infrastructure. Firefighters, for their own safety, knocked down unstable pieces of the building. Some of the stone, Chester said, came loose as workers put up a sidewalk safety shed around the site.

“The north tower,” said Chester, “is in very severe condition” and must be demolished. While the south tower looks more stable at first glance, he said, it is also in bad shape. As anyone can tell walking along Broome Street, the north side of the building is in tatters. The facade is largely gone and there’s very little to be saved.

“The rear of the building does look (to be) in relatively good condition,” Chester reported, but he added, “It’s still not in great shape, and we won’t really know the damage that’s been done to that wall (until crews get a closer look).” The masonry on the southern wall was badly damaged, but engineers are at least somewhat hopeful parts of it can be saved. 

“The rabbi and the congregation,” Chester concluded, “are committing to try their best to save as much as they can.” While no one wants to see the building demolished, he said, “the reality of the situation is that it’s probably going that way, but we will do our best.”

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Rabbi Mendel Greenbaum of Beth Hamedrash Hagadol also spoke during last night’s meeting. He said the building has great sentimental value to him (Greenbaum’s father-in-law, the great Rabbi Ephraim Oshry, led the congregation for a half century). Referencing the plans with the Chinese American Planning Council (CPC), he said the synagogue’s board of directors remains committed to re-establishing the shul on the Lower East Side. The rabbi indicated that the synagogue’s air rights were worth about $12 before the fire. The development site at 60 Norfolk St., which will not be a city-protected landmark much longer, is now worth about $18 million, he estimated. For the first time, Greenbaum said publicly that the synagogue had no fire insurance.

Alan Gerson, a former Lower Manhattan City Councilman, is CPC’s lawyer. During the meeting, he said the original plans would have included restoring the synagogue, establishing a public events space and a shul on the lower level. The vision was also to create housing, “including significant affordable housing,” said Gerson, “serving a cross-section of the community.” The idea, he explained, was also to create a “revenue stream” (presumably through at least some market rate apartments and facility rentals) to support CPC’s social services for young people and seniors.

While Gerson acknowledged that CPC has signed an “option agreement” with a developer, the Gotham Organization, for the project, but he said it’s only an “exploratory” contract, not a finalized deal. Gerson said CPC remains committed to the plan and he pledged to work with the community and to “honor the heritage of the site.” 

“We will respect the preservationists’ desires expressed at this meeting (to save as much of the building as possible),” said Gerson. “We share them. We reflect them. We are not the owners of that property and we have not taken legal title to that property, but we are certainly committed, to the extent feasible, to proceeding in partnership in such a way that as much (of the building) as possible (is preserved).” 

CPC attorney Alan Gerson spoke at CB3's landmarks committee.

CPC attorney Alan Gerson spoke at CB3’s landmarks committee.

Several community members spoke out last night about the demise of Beth Hamedrash Hagadol. Some of them argued that far more should have been done in the past decade to save a cherished Lower East Side Jewish site. Others expressed concern that profits from the sale of the Norfolk property stay in the community, rather than benefiting private individuals. We will have a separate story later today detailing their arguments.

The landmarks committee last night approved a resolution stating the importance to the Lower East Side community of Beth Hamedrash Hagadol, which has been a city landmark since 1967. The resolution called on the property owners to preserve as much as they possibly can of the distressed building. A vote of the full board will take place later in the month. The Landmarks Preservation Commission has scheduled a hearing on the matter for July. The Buildings Department has not insisted on immediate demolition, saying the structure does not pose a danger to the surrounding neighborhood.