(Photos) Demolition at Beth Hamedrash Hagadol

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As we first reported on Tuesday, crews have begun a partial demolition of Beth Hamedrash Hagadol, the historic Lower East Synagogue destroyed by fire earlier this year. Here are the photos from the scene today.

The work right now is concentrated on the north side of the building at 60 Norfolk St., where pieces of brick are being removed. Engineers have said that two towers in front of the building are extremely unstable, and that parts of the north and south walls are also at risk of collapsing. The Landmarks Preservation Commission has instructed the building owners to save as much of the facade as possible, and to remove significant artifacts for possible later use.

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Landmarks Commission Approves “Careful” Demolition of Beth Hamedrash Hagadol

Beth Hamedrash Hagadol, 60 Norfolk St.

Beth Hamedrash Hagadol, 60 Norfolk St.

The leadership of Beth Hamedrash Hagadol went before the Landmarks Preservation Commission this morning to argue for the demolition of their fire-ravaged synagogue at 60 Norfolk St. The commissioners signaled their reluctance to approve an application for full demolition. Instead, they want to see the preservation of as much of the landmark-protected building as possible.

The 167-year-old synagogue was set on fire May 14, allegedly by teenage boys. Bryan Chester, an engineer at Howard L. Zimmerman Architects, told commissioners that the building is unstable and that very little of the remaining facade is salvageable. The firm was hired by the synagogue to assess the condition of the 167-year-old structure, which has suffered from decades of neglect. The Department of Buildings and an engineer working for the Landmarks Preservation Commission concur with Chester’s findings.

During today’s hearing, however, the commissioners alluded to the historic importance of the building, once home to the oldest congregation of Russian Jews in this country. While acknowledging that some portions of the synagogue must be taken down for safety reasons, they urged the property owners to conduct demolition work carefully. Commission staff this afternoon are drafting a resolution approving limited demolition, under the supervision of the agency’s engineering consultant.

Once that resolution has been approved, we’ll update this story and also have a full recap from today’s hearing.

UPDATE 4:37 p.m. The Landmarks Preservation Commission (LPC) approved the application for demolition, but made several modifications. LPC determined that portions of the building (particularly on the west, north and south facades) are structurally unsound and unsafe and must be removed. The commission stated that the demolition work must be conducted carefully in order to save as much of the building as possible. The sole purpose of the demolition is to stabilize the facades. The LPC is instructing the building owners to salvage significant architectural features and finished materials. Finally, the commission’s engineering firm will be monitoring the demolition work.

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.

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.

Teen Accused in Synagogue Fire Returns to Courthouse; No Case Filed Today

Fire at Beth Hamedrash Hagadol, May 14. Photo by Richard Brennan.

Fire at Beth Hamedrash Hagadol, May 14. Photo by Richard Brennan.

A teenager arrested in connection with a fire that decimated the historic Lower East Side synagogue, Beth Hamedrash Hagadol, was back in family court this morning. The New York City Law Department, which handles juvenile cases, once again today declined to file charges.

The 14-year-old boy was arrested two days after the fire broke out and brought into the 7th Precinct. The NYPD anticipated filing third degree arson charges against the boy. He was taken into custody after police reviewed surveillance video that showed three young people fleeing the scene shortly after the blaze started in the abandoned building.  The teen was released into the custody of his mother May 18.

In his second court date this morning, the Law Department was expected to inform the suspect whether a case would be filed and referred to a family court judge. In a statement received a short time ago, a department spokesperson said, “We are continuing our investigation into this matter. If we file charges on a future date, a press statement will be issued at that time.”

The 167-year-old building is a New York City landmark and one of the most significant synagogues on the Lower East Side. At the time of the fire, the rabbi and leaders of the Chinese American Planning Council say they were finalizing plans to restore the synagogue and build a new mixed-use project on an adjacent parcel. Inspectors this week hope to determine if any part of the synagogue can be saved.

Click here if you would like to read more about the process for dealing with juvenile defendants in New York City.

Fate of Fire-Ravaged Beth Hamedrash Hagadol Could Be Decided This Week

Beth Hamedrash Hagadol, Friday, May 26.

Beth Hamedrash Hagadol, Friday, May 26.

More than two weeks after the devastating fire at Beth Hamdrash Hagadol, the historic Norfolk Street synagogue, engineers are still trying to determine whether any part of the 167-year-old building can be saved.

We spoke with Rabbi Mendel Greenbaum late last week, who said it will likely be a few more days before they have any solid answers. As you may have noticed, construction fencing went up around the perimeter some time ago and a shed for debris was moved into position behind the synagogue. The Department of Buildings’ (DOB) forensic engineering unit will be working o determine if the remaining structure is secure, or whether walls are in danger of collapsing. Howard L. Zimmerman Architects has filed applications for the removal of debris, according to the DOB’s online database.

Greenbaum said he’s determined to move ahead in partnership with the Chinese American Planning Council (CPC) for a new structure behind the current nursing home building. That site is owned by the CPC. Before the May 14 fire, the two organizations were planning to restore the synagogue building as part of the new development, creating a synagogue space in the basement of the landmark-protected building. Greenbaum said he still wants to re-establish Beth Hamedrash Hagadol as a functioning congregation on the Lower East Side.

In related news, a 14-year-old boy accused of setting the fire is expected to be back in family court tomorrow. According to a spokesperson with the NYC Law Department, he’ll be informed as to whether a case will be filed against him. If that occurs, the boy will be required to appear before a judge. He was arrested May 16 and later released into the custody of his mother, a Lower East Side resident.

Teen Accused of Setting Synagogue Fire Released Into Parental Custody

Beth Hamedrash Hagadol, May 17, 2017.

Beth Hamedrash Hagadol, May 17, 2017.

Here’s the latest on the investigation into the destructive fire at Beth Hamedrash Hagadol.

A 14-year-old boy who was arrested Tuesday evening in connection with the synagogue fire was released into parental custody after an initial court appearance yesterday. As the New York Times reported, he appeared in Family Court and the case was referred to the city’s Law Department. The teen, whose name is being withheld because he’s being prosecuted as a juvenile, lives about a half mile from the synagogue at 60 Norfolk St. The teen is due back in court May 31, when prosecutors will be required to spell out the charges they plan to pursue against him. More from the Times:

The police took the teenager into custody after interviewing his two companions, who were released. He was brought on Tuesday night to the 7th Precinct station, where Commissioner James P. O’Neill happened to be attending a community council meeting. The boy declined to talk to investigators and requested a lawyer, the police said. The police have not determined a motive or uncovered any indication of bias.

The Lo-Down first reported the arrest yesterday morning, after we witnessed the boy being escorted by cops into the precinct the previous evening. Eyewitnesses saw three teens running from the synagogue shortly after the fire erupted Sunday evening. Security camera tape was used by cops to identify the teens.

On Wednesday, The New York Post identified the teen, reporting:

David Diaz was with other teens inside the abandoned Beth Hamedrash Hagadol synagogue when he allegedly set a curtain on fire Sunday night, according to the sources. The flaming curtain fell onto some pews, causing the fire to quickly spread through the building, which was destroyed. Several teens were caught on surveillance video fleeing the scene — and a female friend of the alleged arsonist gave him up to cops after they spotted her going to school on Tuesday… Diaz is also responsible for a smaller blaze that broke out at the synagogue on May 7, according to law-enforcement sources.

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In the past day, construction fencing went up around the 167-year-old building. Fire investigators have not been able to conduct a search of the main floor of the synagogue due to stability concerns. Safety supports will be put in place before they enter the building. “Astonishingly the synagogue’s towers remained standing,” noted the Times, giving preservationists some hope that part of the the city landmark could be salvaged.

This morning, a Department of Buildings spokesman said the agency’s investigation into the structural stability of the building is still ongoing.

14-Year-Old Arrested in Connection With Fire at Beth Hamedrash Hagadol Synagogue (Updated)

Photo by Richard Brennan.

Photo by Richard Brennan.

First on The Lo-Down: A teenager faces arson charges this morning in connection with the devastating fire at Beth Hamedrash Hagadol, the Norfolk Street synagogue.

The 14-year-old boy was taken into custody last night just hours after NYPD officials said they were investigating the blaze as arson. Witnesses said three young people were seen in the vicinity of the building. Cops had been reviewing security camera tape that also showed the possible teenage suspects fleeing the scene.

The synagogue, one of the neighborhood’s most important historic sites, was destroyed Sunday evening. Rabbi Mendel Greenbaum told us that kids have been going in an out of the building for weeks (the synagogue has been vacant since 2007 but a restoration plan was in the works).

Police are not releasing the name of the suspect since he is a juvenile, but we’re told he lives in the neighborhood.

One other note. The teen was brought into the 7th Precinct last night as the monthly community council meeting was underway. He was taken to a room on the second floor for questioning. Police Commissioner James O’Neill was in attendance at the meeting.

UPDATE 9:24 a.m. A few more details now from the New York Post: The teen was arrested at his home, “which is not far from the Beth Hamedrash Hagadol synagogue.” The boy has been charged with third degree felony arson as a juvenile. The other teens are apparently claiming they did not participate in setting the fire:

Cops busted him after speaking to one or more of his friends who were present at the time the fire was set, and implicated him as the person who started the blaze, police sources said. The people who provided that information told cops that their friend acted alone — even though they accompanied the suspect into the abandoned temple, sources said. The teen will likely be arraigned at Manhattan Family Court later Wednesday.

UPDATE 9:57 a.m. More from Channel 7:

Detectives have names of (the suspect’s) two friends, also spotted on surveillance video, fleeing the scene. Police said they are seeking to question them also… Surveillance video recovered from a nearby camera showed three young people running from the general area. Although the fire occurred in what was once a house of worship, it was not investigated as a bias crime.

NYPD Calls Lower East Side Synagogue Fire “Arson”

Photo by Rich Caplan.

Photo by Rich Caplan.

A top NYPD official said today that the devastating fire at the Beth Hamedrash Hagadol Synagogue on Sunday is believed to be arson.

While authorities said yesterday they were reviewing video tape showing three young people running from the scene, they stopped short of suggesting that they were responsible for the fire. The blaze destroyed one of the Lower East Side’s most cherished landmarks.

According to DNAinfo, Chief of Detectives Robert Boyce said today, “The synagogue fire in the 7th precinct, we do think it’s arson, a purposeful fire.” Boyce added that witnesses have reported seeing people running from the synagogue Sunday night. “We are looking forward to making an arrest in that case,” said Boyce.

The fire department has not yet weighed in on the cause of the fire.

New Photos, Investigation Details: Fire Destroys Beth Hamedrash Hagadol

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We just returned from Norfolk Street, where city inspectors are trying to determine the next steps in the aftermath of Sunday night’s horrible fire at Beth Hamedrash Hagadol.

Staff from the Department of Buildings are on the scene, along with the fire marshal and Mendel Greenbaum, rabbi of the historic Lower East Side synagogue. A search of the basement has taken place (it was not burned), but going inside what’s left of the main level has been impossible. “No way we can search the first floor, with what collapsed on top of it,” Manhattan Borough Commander Roger Sakowich told Channel 2 yesterday.

Last night, Yehuda Oshry (son of Beth Hamedrash Hagadol’s legendary former rabbi) told us fire officials are evaluating whether the remaining walls need to be taken down immediately for safety reasons. This morning, Greenbaum said no decisions have been made because the fire department and buildings department are still figuring out how to access the building interior. Yesterday the Department of Buildings took the routine step of issuing a full vacate order until a structural stability inspection is conducted.

Meanwhile, investigators are still looking over videotape showing three people running in the vicinity of the synagogue Sunday night. It isn’t known whether they were inside the building, where the fire was almost certainly set. Local resident Rich Caplan said his wife saw someone jumping over the fence “They didn’t look around to case the joint, they just jumped over the fence, went up through the windows that’s on the side of the synagogue and that was it,” Caplan told Channel 2.

One issue to be determined: the fate of Beth Hamedrash Hagadol’s status as a city landmark (a designation it has held since 1967). Today, Landmarks Preservation Commission spokesperson Sonia Edghill tells us,  “The Department of Buildings is investigating the condition and LPC will be coordinating closely with DOB to determine the stability of the remaining fabric.  LPC will not take any steps on the status of the designation until the investigation is completed.  Any potential changes to the designation status of the property would require review by the full Commission at a public hearing.”

More photos from the scene today:

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beth hamedrash hagadol 5/16 back view

Gotham Organization Identified as Development Partner For Synagogue Site

beth hamedrash monday afternoon

We have just heard back from the Landmarks Preservation Commission after asking some questions this morning about the fate of Beth Hamedrash Hagadol.

Following last night’s devastating fire at 60 Norfolk St., officials from several agencies were on site today to conduct investigations. LPC spokesperson Sonia Edghill tells us that representatives of the commission met on the Lower East Side today with the property owner and officials with the Department of Buildings (DOB).

DOB and the Fire Department are conducting separate investigations. The owner’s engineer was also expected to inspect what’s left of the building today. A decision on its status as a city landmark has not yet been made, although the outcome seems fairly obvious judging from the gaping hole in the center of the building.

Last night, Rabbi Mendel Greenbaum told us he was previously scheduled to meet with LPC officials this week about a restoration and redevelopment plan for the site. It was to be a collaboration between the synagogue and the Chinese American Planning Council, which owns a parcel behind the synagogue.

Edghill confirmed this, saying, “The meeting on Wednesday was to discuss the restoration and redevelopment of the property in connection with a development with the adjacent building owner, the Chinese American Planning Council and the developer Gotham.” She added, “LPC staff has been meeting with the Synagogue for a number of years to help in addressing maintenance issues and to identify and explore ways to achieve restoration and redevelopment of the property.”

The Gotham Organization is probably best known for the large residential and commercial project, Gotham West, on 11th Avenue. It was one of many developers responding to an RFP for the Seward Park Urban Renewal Area a few years ago (the firm did not win the contract). You can read more about the company here.

Photos Through the Years: Beth Hamedrash Hagadol

beth hamedrash hagadol historic photo

Here are some of the photos we have collected during the past eight years of covering the plight of Beth Hamedrash Hagadol.

January 2013.

January 2013.

New York Sun; photo by Heuichel Kim.

New York Sun; photo by Heuichel Kim.

Inside Beth Hamedrash Hagadol, fall of 2012.

Inside Beth Hamedrash Hagadol, fall of 2012.

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Inside Beth Hamedrash Hagadol, fall of 2012.

Inside Beth Hamedrash Hagadol, fall of 2012.

60 norfolk interior fall 2012 (5)

Inside Beth Hamedrash Hagadol, fall of 2012.

Inside Beth Hamedrash Hagadol, fall of 2012.

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Midday Update: Fire Destroys Beth Hamedrash Hagadol

Photo: Lonnie Duka.

Photo: Lonnie Duka.

Here’s a midday update on the fire that destroyed Beth Hamedrash Hagadol, one of the Lower East Side’s most cherished Jewish historic sites.

Investigators are still sifting through the ashes of the synagogue to determine how last night’s fire at 60 Norfolk St. started. Channel 4 reported:

Authorities believe the fire started from within the historic Congregation Beth Hamedrash Hagadol, though how, and precisely where, remains under investigation. Fire marshals began conducting a ground search at the synagogue on Norfolk Street Monday, about 12 hours after the three-alarm blaze tore through the 19th century structure.

DNAinfo reported that police are reviewing surveillance footage showing three young people running from the area Sunday night, but “it is still unknown whether they were fleeing the historic synagogue and it is too early to say whether criminality was involved in the massive blaze.”

According to the New York Post, a witness told fire investigators he saw three people running from the synagogue. ATF agents were on site today. “Somehow this fire started in a building that isn’t being used. So we’re going to investigate further,” said FDNY Manhattan Borough Commander Roger Sakowich.

Officials with the Landmarks Preservation Commission were on the scene this morning. In 1967, the synagogue’s legendary spiritual leader, Rabbi Ephraim Oshry, led a successful effort to designate the Gothic Revival structure as a New York City landmark. It was shuttered in 2007 after years of neglect. While the current rabbi, Mendl Greenbaum, considered demolishing the structure, he relented in 2013, agreeing to work with local preservationists for an alternative to demolition.

One organization involved in those efforts is the New York Landmarks Conservancy. Earlier today, we spoke with Colleen Heemeyer, manager of grants and technical services. She said that the conservancy has had no contact with the synagogue’s leadership since 2014 and 2015, when there was talk of renovating the building and using it for some type of commercial facility. The Landmarks Conservancy awarded Beth Hamedrash Hagadol a $14,000 grant in 2013 for a structural study of the building. Asked for her response to last night’s fire, Heemeyer said, “The loss of a landmark is always tragic. The impact on the community is tragic, especially when a community is losing part of its local fabric.”

We also contacted Joyce Mendelsohn from Friends of the Lower East Side (a preservation group). She’s also author of Lower East Side: Remembered & Revisited. She made reference to our report last night that neighborhood youths have been seen going in and out of the building in recent weeks and to a prevailing point of view in the community: that this fire seems awfully suspicious. Here’s what Mendelsohn had to say:

The destruction of  Beth Hamedrash Hagadol Synagogue is a devastating loss to the Jewish heritage of the Lower East Side.  Erected as the Norfolk Street Baptist Church in 1850, the building was acquired and remodeled as a synagogue in 1888.  It was the nation’s oldest Orthodox Jewish Russian congregation founded in 1852  and  stood as a tangible reminder of the hundreds of  thousands of Jewish immigrants – fleeing programs and economic deprivation – who found justice and opportunity in America on the streets of the Lower East Side. Accident or hate crime?  It is easy to place the blame on the carelessness of  neighborhood youth, but there may have been a darker motive.  Could the fire have been deliberately set to clear the site for redevelopment with vast profits as luxury housing?

Over the years, we have covered the plight of Beth Hamedrash Hagadol.  Here’s an excerpt from our January 2014 story:

(In the spring of 2013) the New York Landmarks Conservancy conducted an engineering study to assess the building’s condition.  A draft report was completed during the summer, according to Ann Friedman, director of the conservancy’s Sacred Sites Program. The initial inspection found some structural problems, including a destabilized balcony, collapsing joists and erosion of the space between the roof and one of the building’s walls.  But the evaluation showed that the foundation is secure and that the synagogue’s basic structure has not been compromised.  The interior, however, has been badly damaged from water seeping in from the leaky roof.  The report recommends removal of all plaster (there may be a few salvageable decorative elements) and a complete renovation.  Friedman said the next step is to create a proposed budget for the project.  In the past, preservation experts have estimated restoration costs of at least $3.5 million.  In 2010, the conservancy estimated it would cost about $1 million just to seal the building, a critical step in preventing further flooding and water damage.  Once the report is finalized, it will be forwarded to the Landmarks Commission.

In a recent phone conversation, Rabbi Greenbaum said he remains dedicated to the preservation effort.  “We know we have to act,” he said.  Greenbaum said preliminary talks have taken place involving the developers of Essex Crossing, the large mixed-use project being planned on several parcels surrounding the synagogue.  The hope is that the developers will want to purchase the Norfolk Street property, pay for the restoration of the synagogue and incorporate it into their project as some kind of community center.  Greenbaum said no promises have been made, but Essex Crossing representatives were receptive.  In response to an inquiry from The Lo-Down last fall, a spokesperson for the development team declined to “speculate on any kind of future relationship” with Beth Hamedrash Hagadol.

AMNY has more comments today from Rabbi Greenbaum:

Everybody’s in shock… I had to hold on not to collapse… For us, besides a community tragedy, it’s a personal family tragedy as well… (Speaking of more recent preservation efforts, he added:) Originally when the congregation dwindled down, there were no congregants, there was no means…to be able to save our congregation… But then through intervening from some people, good friends, we changed our mind and we were all out to save the building, to save the landmark.

 

Finally, here’s the 1967 designation report from the Landmarks Preservation Commission:

 

Morning Photos: Beth Hamedrash Hagadol Destroyed By Fire

Photo by Cindy Maisonave.

Photo by Cindy Maisonave.

Here are the first heartbreaking photos this morning from 60 Norfolk St., the former Beth Hamedrash Hagadol Synagogue, which was ravaged by fire last night.

As you can see the facade and the entire interior from the 167-year-old city landmark are gone. This morning, fire investigators continue to search for clues revealing how the building caught on fire shortly before 7 p.m.

As we reported late last night, kids have been going in and out of the building in recent weeks. There was a small fire in the synagogue a week ago. Rabbi Mendl Greenbaum told us  authorities are looking at security camera tapes to determine whether the kids may have been on the scene last night. Greenbaum also told us he was scheduled to meet with representatives of the Landmarks Preservation Commission this week about a possible plan to restore the synagogue, which has been empty since 2007. He had been working with the Chinese American Planning Council, which has been seeking to develop a parcel it owns behind the synagogue.

morning fire 1

Today news crews are set up at the corner of Grand Street and Norfolk. Broome Street and Norfolk Street are closed to auto and pedestrian traffic.

We’ll have more throughout the day. The Department of Buildings and Landmarks Commission are expected to make initial assessments of the building today. although it’s apparent this morning that there’s little left to salvage. Beth Hamedrash Hagadol has been a New York City landmark since 1967.

morning back of synagogue

news crews