Department of Buildings Declares Beth Hamedrash Hagadol Unstable

Beth Hamedrash Hagadol, 60 Norfolk St.

Beth Hamedrash Hagadol, 60 Norfolk St.

The Department of Buildings (DOB) has determined that the remains of Beth Hamedrash Hagadol, the historic Lower East Side synagogue, are unstable. The agency, however, will not insist on the immediate demolition of the 167-year-old building because a safety zone has been established around the property. The announcement came from DOB late this afternoon.

The building, a city landmark since 1967, was destroyed by fire May 14. The Lo-Down first reported on Saturday that the synagogue’s leaders have submitted an application for demolition to the Landmarks Preservation Commission. The application will be heard before Community Board 3’s landmarks committee (an advisory body) tomorrow (Tuesday) evening. A Landmarks Commission hearing will be held July 11.

Forensic engineers from the Buildings Department believe that the remaining facade has been compromised. Since the structure is not a danger to neighboring properties or to the public, a DOB spokesperson said, the agency has decided against issuing an emergency declaration to demolish the historic synagogue.

Before the building can be taken down, the owners will be required to go through the city’s permit application process and to seek approval from the Landmarks Commission. There has been talk of trying to preserve a portion of the old structure, incorporating it into new construction on the Norfolk Street site. The synagogue is partnering with the Chinese American Planning Council to build a mixed-use complex on the synagogue lot and an adjacent parcel.

Demolition Application Filed For Fire Ravaged Beth Hamedrash Hagadol

Beth Hamedrash Hagadol, 60 Norfolk St.

Beth Hamedrash Hagadol, 60 Norfolk St.

There’s some sad but unsurprising news to report this morning about Beth Hamedrash Hagadol, the Lower East Side synagogue destroyed in a May 14 fire.

The synagogue’s rabbi, Mendel Greenbaum, has told The Lo-Down that he’s filed an application for demolition with the Landmarks Preservation Commission (LPC). The commission plans to hold a hearing on the application July 11. The first step, however, is an appearance by building ownership and its engineers at the Landmarks Committee of Community Board 3. That’s scheduled this coming Tuesday, June 20 at 6:30 p.m. (JASA/Green Residence, 200 East 5th St.)

In a phone interview yesterday, Rabbi Greenbaum said the Department of Buildings is extremely concerned about the stability of the fire ravaged building at 60 Norfolk St. Inspectors have not been able to enter the synagogue, which is filled with rubble. They made their assessment after examining the perimeter of the 167-year-old building.

There’s particular concern about the two towers in the front of the shul. When the roof collapsed during the fire, much of the masonry of the towers was taken out.  The synagogue hired an independent consultant, Howard L. Zimmerman Architects, to conduct an independent study. Greenbaum said the results of that survey are consistent with the Buildings Department’s findings.

Photo by Rich Caplan.

Photo by Rich Caplan.

The Landmarks Preservation Commission did not respond to our request for information about Beth Hamedrash Hagadol yesterday. We also contacted the Department of Buildings, asking whether any decisions had been made about the fate of 60 Norfolk St. A spokesperson would say only that the investigation is ongoing and that the agency has received no application for demolition.

In December of 2012, Rabbi Greenbaum filed a hardship application with the LPC to demolish the building, which had been closed five years earlier and required millions of dollars in repairs. The vision at that time was to build a new mixed-use building with space for the synagogue on the ground floor.  Several months later, however, he had a change of heart. In March of 2013, the rabbi told us the demolition application was being put on hold. In response to local pleas for preservation, Greenbaum said he would try to find a development partner interested in restoring the building.

The synagogue and the Chinese American Planning Council (CPC) were working on a restoration plan that also included building on a site owned by CPC behind the shul. Along with their development partner, the Gotham Organization, they were scheduled to meet with representatives of the Landmarks Commission three days after the fire. The plans have obviously changed dramatically.

Beth Hamedrash Hagadol was the oldest congregation of Russian Jews in this country.  The building opened in 1850 as a Baptist church (some of its congregants later founded Riverside Church).  The synagogue purchased the building in 1885. The congregation was led by Rabbi Jacob Joseph, the first and only chief rabbi of New York City.  Rabbi Ephraim Oshry, an internationally known scholar and a Holocaust survivor, was spiritual leader of the synagogue for 50 years, before his death in 2003.  Oshry, Greenbaum’s father-in-law, spearheaded a successful campaign in 1967 to designate the synagogue as a city landmark.

Rabbi Greenbaum hopes to establish a small synagogue in the basement of the new building. Those plans are still moving forward. The synagogue site could accommodate a 45,000 square foot building, even before accounting for the neighboring CPC parcel. Greenbaum and members of the Oshry family would like to salvage some part of the synagogue as a memorial to one of the most significant Jewish sites on the Lower East Side.

A 14-year-old boy was arrested in connection with starting the fire. Prosecutors have, at least for the time being, chosen not to press charges. The case is being handled in juvenile court.

Latest Developments: Fire at Beth Hamedrash Hagadol

Photo by Rich Caplan.

Photo by Rich Caplan.

We have more details on tonight’s devastating fire at Beth Hamedrash Hagadol, the 167-year-old synagogue building at 60 Norfolk St.

More than 100 firefighters fought the blaze, which broke out just before 7 p.m. It was under control by about 8:50 p.m., but not before ravaging the historic landmark. Thankfully, no one was injured.

A short time ago, we spoke with Rabbi Mendl Greenbaum, who was on the scene to begin assessing the damage to the building. The synagogue was shuttered in 2007. He told us that groups of young people had entered the property in recent weeks. Police have been called on numerous occasions, he said. They apparently set a small fire last Sunday evening (exactly one week ago).  A TLD reader, Paul Power, sent us the photo you see below, showing fire trucks in front of the synagogue Sunday, May 7. Greenbaum said authorities are checking security cameras in the area for evidence that the same kids were on the scene tonight.

Greenbaum said he was scheduled to pay a visit to the Landmarks Preservation Commission in the coming week to discuss the future of the building. He was to be accompanied by representatives of the Chinese American Planning Council (CPC), which owns the parcel behind the building. CPC has for many years been contemplating a new commercial building on the site. Greenbaum said a development plan for both parcels was to include the renovation of the dilapidated synagogue building.

In 2012, Greenbaum filed a hardship application with the Landmarks Commission, seeking permission to demolish the building. Under pressure from preservation groups, he withdrew the application. Several organizations, including the New York Landmarks Conservancy, have been advocating for a full restoration. Beth Hamedrash Hagadol is the oldest synagogue of Russian Jews in this country.  It was built in 1850 as a church.

Earlier tonight, City Council member Margaret Chin was on site to gather information and to assist residents of the Hong Ning senior housing complex, located next door to the synagogue. The elevators were shut down for a time, and there was concern about tenants potentially suffering smoke inhalation, or having to evacuate. Fortunately, they were all okay, and evacuations were not necessary. Chin called the fire “devastating,” and said officials will be “working hard to save the historic landmark.”  Assemblywoman Yuh-Line Niou also put out a statement tonight, saying she was in close contact with emergency officials and staff members were on Norfolk Street to assist residents with any pressing needs.

Wayne Ho, president and CEO of Chinese American Planning Council was in the lobby of the Hong Ning building, as well (his organization owns the property). He declined to discuss any potential development of the site adjacent to Beth Hamedrash Hagadol, except to say that, “many conversations have been taking place.”

It will be tomorrow before Department of Buildings inspectors get their first look inside the badly damaged building. Local preservationists already fear the worst, strongly suspecting that the cherished Jewish sacred site will be condemned and demolished. The now charred and gutted synagogue, of course, sits right in the middle of the Essex Crossing development site. As a vacant parcel, it would be worth many millions.

Last Sunday evening, May 7. Photo by Paul Power.

Last Sunday evening, May 7. Photo by Paul Power.

Followup: Saving Beth Hamedrash Hagadol, the Endangered Norfolk Street Synagogue

Petition Started to Save Norfolk Street Synagogue

Beth Hamedrash Hagadol, 60 Norfolk St.

We continue to follow developments at Beth Hamedrash Hagadol, the endangered synagogue at 60 Norfolk St.  The synagogue has asked the Landmarks Preservation Commission for permission to demolish the 1850 building, which was protected in 1967.  In January a local preservation organization, Friends of the Lower East Side, urged supporters to contact the commission, urging it to reject demolition. Now the group has started an online petition.   You can find the petition here.