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:


NYC DOT Launches “Shared Streets” Festivities in Lower Manhattan

This Saturday, NYC’s Department of Transportation launches its first “Shared Streets” community initiative in Lower Manhattan. From 11:00 a.m. to 4:00 p.m., cyclists, pedestrians and motorists will share the streets in the Seaport and Financial district (motorists are encouraged to drive 5 mph) and will have the opportunity to explore Lower Manhattan’s history, architecture and arts.

There’s an outlined map of activities planned throughout the day and a “Creative Insider’s Guide to Lower Manhattan” from the Lower Manhattan Cultural Council. Among the activities are drill and period performances by The Fife & Drums of the Old Barracks, a NYC History Trivia Quiz Game, a pop-up drawing studio courtesy of Uni DRAW and self-guided activities by the Skyscraper museum, tandem bike riding, sailing and so much more. Special offers from local area museums and businesses are also available.

For more info on Shared Streets and a full list of events that day, click here.


Get Your ID NYC at the MOCA Pop-Up

unnamed (1)Starting August 16th, New Yorkers can enroll for a free ID NYC card at the pop-up enrollment center in the Museum of Chinese in America. Residents in any of the five boroughs who are 14 years and older are eligible. IDNYC provides a free one-year membership to 40 cultural institutions (from MOMA, the Bronx Museum of Arts to MOCA and the Natural History Museum) and discounts to certain entertainment and health and fitness centers. Check out a full list of benefits here.

To apply, set up an appointment at www.nyc.gov/IDNYC (walk-ins are not guaranteed) or call 311. The MOCA pop-up is open from August 16th to August 27th with varying hours listed below. Another pop-up at Chatham Square Library is set to open on August 30th until September 17th.

MOCA, 147 Lafayette St. | Tuesday, Wednesday, Friday, and Saturday, 11 am – 6 pm | Thursday, 12 pm – 8pm | On August 27, the site will close at noon.

Click here for the nearest enrollment center near you.

Good Morning!

essex street market

Wednesday, July 27, 2016 | Here’s a photo taken by the team at the Essex Street Market a few weeks ago. That’s Gera Lozano’s new mural. | Weather: Partly cloudy today with a high of 90. | If you would like to share a neighborhood picture with us, send it to: tips@thelodownny.com or tag us on Instagram at #LoDownNY.

(Sponsored) LoHo Realty Apartment of the Week

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The nicely sized second bedroom also has 2 exposures (NE and SW) with the third bedroom facing NE. The windowed, eat-in kitchen is huge and can easily be opened to the oversized living area to create a loft-like living space. Other great features include hardwood floors, 6 large closets, and overhead lighting in all bedrooms and the living room.

Gifting, pied-a-terre, subletting and guarantors are permitted. Dogs allowed subject to registration/approval. Very low maintenance; monthly assessment of $76.68 thru July 2019. Amenities include 2 private parks complete with playgrounds & water park, a fully equipped gym, indoor children’s playroom, 24/7 lobby attendant, 24/7 very modern laundry room, on-site maintenance office, community garden, composting, bike storage, parking (wait list), shared office space, and community room complete with modern kitchen for all kind of events and parties.

Washers / dryers are allowed. Transit: Short walk to F, J, M & Z trains; buses: M14 at the corner. Short walk to M15, M21 & M22. The M22 and M15 buses provide direct access to the financial district.

268 E. Broadway, Apt. A101

Price: $1,250,000

Maintenance: $800.00

Open House: Sunday, July 17, 12:30 p.m. – 1:30 p.m.

Offered by LoHo Realty.

Additional photos and info available here.

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Morning Reads: Sandy Two Years Later, New Bowery Gallery, Graffiti War

A new report suggests the Lower East Side bounced back relatively quickly after Hurricane Sandy due to the neighborhood’s “social ties.” (Newsweek)

Investigation: Red Cross botched hurricane aid effort (Pro Publica).

Bridget Donahue, director of Gavin Brown’s Enterprise, is opening a gallery of her own at 99 Bowery (Art News).

What’s one of your first steps after becoming a senior manager at a big bank’s commercial real estate division?  Invite 100 of your best clients to the Tenement Museum (Commercial Observer).

Chico, among others, weighs in on the mayor’s war on graffiti (Vice).

Morning Reads: Schrager Boasts About 215 Chrystie Sales, Synagogue Landmarked, Mayor’s Park Plan Too Timid

Ian Schrager says sales at 215 Chrystie St. are strong. There has been no negotiating; “You’re probably paying close to about $8 million for a three-bedroom apartment,” he says. Asked about increased interest in the area, he responds: “I think the neighborhood is right in the center of what’s going on… I think it’s one of the most charming blocks in the city.” (NYT)

The Chinatown-based Lam Group, perhaps New York’s most prolific hotel developer, operates out of a modest building on Centre Street. The firm is looking at strategies to raise more capital (Real Estate Weekly).

NYU’s stampede continues, as the school buys 402-408 Lafayette St. for $157 million (Real Deal).

Tifereth Israel Town and Village Synagogue is now a city landmark (Channel 7).

Reaction to the landmark commission’s decision (EV Grieve).

Critics Notebook: The mayor’s initiative to fix “35 small community parks is nice. But it doesn’t go nearly far enough.”  Instead of raising the budget for park maintenance, he “pretends to entertain the knuckle-headed demand of State Senator Daniel L. Squadron, a Democrat, that private park conservancies fork over money for public parks lacking patron saints.” (NYT)

Some politicians want Comcast to provide free broadband to all public housing residents as a condition of its merger with Time Warner (NYT).

Review: “Father Comes Home From the Wars (Parts 1, 2 & 3)” at the Public Theater may be Pulitzer winner Suzan-Lori Park’s “finest work yet.” (NYT)

Bicyclist Seriously Injured on Allen Street This Afternoon

Sponsored Post: Loho Realty Apartment of the Week

“Economy Foam” Sign Comes Down From 175 East Houston

175 East Houston St., last night.

175 East Houston St., last night.

Last night at 175 East Houston St., another piece of the Lower East Side’s past was torn down to make way for a shiny new storefront.  In the days ahead, a round-the-clock restaurant called Preserve 24 will be opening in a large space with entrances on both Allen and East Houston streets.  One of the last tasks at hand was to remove the iconic “Economy Foam” sign that had been affixed to the tenement building for so many years.

Morning Reads: Bialystoker Nursing Home Update, East Broadway Profile, Dogs in Costume

  • The board of the defunct Bialystoker Nursing home says it’s still anxious to sell the organization’s East Broadway building.  Preservationists are still waiting to find out whether the Landmarks Preservation Commission will protect the building.  And for the first time, Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver says he’ll support the commission if it decides in favor of landmark-status (Post).
  • Sheldon Silver’s counsel picks a very “connected” attorney to deal with the state ethics board (Daily News).
  • Local Stop: East Broadway – “where history meets opportunity.” (NYT)
  • Halloween dogs in Tompkins Square Park! (EV Grieve)


Gallery Goer: What to See This Week

Wes Lang at Half Gallery

Half Gallery features the art of Wes Lang in “Here Comes Sunshine,” a fun collection that draws on a variety of influences including tattoo art and motorcycle culture. Ominous references to impending death are plentiful as are nods to the highly sexualized female form.

My LES: Josh Russ Tupper

This popular feature spotlights a wide variety of people who live and work on the Lower East Side. This week, we are featuring Josh Russ Tupper, co-owner of the beloved appetizing store, Russ and Daughters.  (Josh was also featured in our print magazine this month.)


If you would like to nominate someone for “My LES,” please email us here.

What do you do?

I am the fourth-generation owner of Russ & Daughters, along with my cousin Niki Russ Federman.

How long have you lived on the LES?

I moved to the LES in August of 2002 after spending five years working in the semiconductor industry in Portland, Ore.

Favorite block in the hood?

It has to be Broome between Orchard and Ludlow, because if you look up at the buildings, you can’t tell if you’re in the past or present.

Favorite date spot in the hood?

The downstairs bar at Bacaro when it’s cold outside. In the warmer months, outside at ‘Inoteca.

Follow-up: Fire at the Ridley Building on Grand Street

315-319 Grand Street.

Here’s an update on the fire this past weekend at the 125-year-old “pink building,” otherwise know as the former Ridley & Sons Department Store.  The fire broke out Friday night on the third floor of 321 Grand Street (also known as 315-317 Grand).  Windows on three floors were boarded up Sunday and today Jodamo International, the building’s largest retail tenant remains closed. A sign on the door reads, “closed for alterations until next week.”

The Landmarks Preservation Commission has been weighing whether to protect the Ridley building. A hearing was held in June of 2009.  In news articles, the building’s owners, who have been trying to sell the property, have made it clear they’re not enthusiastic about the application before the LPC.

Royal Young: Ed Wood’s Sleaze Paperbacks

Photo by Lee Brozgol.

For decades, the Lower East Side bled into Soho bohemia. The two neighborhoods shared seedy streets, and tin-ceilinged lofts where artists were able to live cheaply, pouring their passion onto canvasses and paper.  Though this deliciously dangerous atmosphere populated by prostitutes, junkies and creatives—sometimes playing interchangeable roles—is gone, Boo-Hooray gallery recently celebrated the seedy with an exhibition of Ed Wood’s sleaze paperbacks.