A couple of weeks ago The New York Times reported the artist Kiki Smith and the architect Deborah Gans had been commissioned to design the new east window of the Museum at Eldridge Street's majestic 1887 synagogue. Recently I went over to the museum to find out more about the project.
The new creation will replace tablet shaped, clear-glass panels installed in the mid- 1940's. While it's apparent the original window was badly damaged, no one's certain of the exact circumstances. Some theorize it was blown out in the hurricane of 1938, but there's no proof of that.
This project posed a preservation dilemma. Since there's no documentation to prove what the original window looked like, many people felt it would have been a deception to fabricate an "imitation of a rose window and present it as original to the space." According to deputy director, Amy Stein Milford, the solution was a design paying homage to the synagogue's history through multiple generations.
Smith and Gans have decided not to release their renderings right away, although Milford said it's possible they'll be made public at some point. They have described the concept, however, in general terms. The stained glass will extend the blue and gold star pattern painted on the wall surrounding the window. In a statement, Smith and Gans said:
The ribs of the window will radiate from a Star of David at the center. In pattern and shape, this window will be similar to the existing ceiling domes of the synagogue and also the trompe-l'oeil windows to either side of the arc. The current technology of flash glass makes it possible to etch the yellow stars into a blue field without any outline or leading so that they will appear as more intense sources of light within the glow of the window.
The selection of Kiki Smith to create a new window for an Orthodox synagogue might be considered unconventional. One of New York's most acclaimed artists, many of her pieces emphasize feminist themes. In recent years, Smith has drawn from her own Catholic upbringing, to create provocative sculptures, prints and drawings. But Milford said it was Smith's spirituality, as well as the almost Victorian motifs in many of her works that appealed to the selection committee.
The window, the sanctuary's focal point, is the last major piece of the Eldridge Street synagogue's breathtaking restoration. The first great house of worship built by Eastern European Jews in this country, the building reopened in 2007. The glass blocks currently making up the east window will be reused in a Memory Wall in the lower level Family History Center.
Milford said the museum has partnered with students at Columbia University, the University of Pennsylvania and the Pratt Institute to consider this project in the context of important preservation undertakings around the world. She hopes communities (extending well beyond the LES) will be inspired to consider the long term effects of architectural and preservation choices being made today. In conjunction with the redesign, she's offering a special tour every Wednesday at 1pm. Visitors will learn more about the creation of the new window, but also go behind the scenes for a revealing look at the 20-year, $18 million restoration of the synagogue.
The window is expected to be installed in May of next year. We'll be keeping tabs on the museum's progress through the winter.
If you're interested in learning more, or in the architecture tour, visit the Museum at Eldridge Street's web site.