Followup: Norfolk Street Synagogue’s Last Stand?

Beth Hamedrash Hagadol, 60 Norfolk Street.
Beth Hamedrash Hagadol, 60 Norfolk Street.

Shortly before the December holidays we broke the news that the leadership of Beth Hamedrash Hagadol, a New York City landmark since 1967, was seeking permission to demolish its 163-year old building on the Lower East Side.  The synagogue at 60 Norfolk Street has been closed for five years, the victim of a violent summer storm, fire and neglect.  Since our initial story, we have spoken with many people who have been involved over the years in efforts to save the building, including the rabbi now advancing a plan to replace the synagogue with a new, modern residential tower and religious center.

We first interviewed Rabbi Mandl Greenbaum last summer, as he was making a final plea to developers to refurbish the building, creating residences or an events center, with room for the synagogue in a portion of the facility.  In a more recent conversation, he explained that these efforts had failed and the synagogue was pursuing what he believes is the only realistic option.   On December 21, lawyers representing the congregation, filed a “hardship application” with the Landmarks Preservation Commission, a required step anytime the owner of a protected building plans demolition.  In place of the 1850 Gothic Revival structure, Greenbaum envisions a 45,000 square foot condo building with room for a small shul and a museum on the ground floor.

The site is increasingly desirable, since it’s surrounded by the Seward Park redevelopment parcels.  The city recently issued a Request for Proposals for the 1.65 million square foot project.  But Greenbaum said he has no commitments from developers; no one is waiting on the sidelines for the Landmarks Commission to act on the hardship application.  Rabbi Greenbaum said he understands the decision to tear down the synagogue, which once housed the oldest congregation of Russian Orthodox Jews in this country, is unpopular.  But he added, “We tried for 15 years to raise the money to save the building. We searched high and low, we reached out to local politicians, we worked with the Jewish Conservancy.  Unfortunately the money wasn’t available.”  In the end, Greenbaum argued, it’s more important to save the synagogue as an institution on the Lower East than to save the building. Partnering with a developer and establishing a robust revenue source is the only way to assure Beth Hamedrash Hagadol’s long-term survival, he said.

Inside Beth Hamedrash Hagadol, fall of 2012.
Inside Beth Hamedrash Hagadol, fall of 2012.
Inside Beth Hamedrash Hagadol, fall of 2012.

Not many people have seen the inside of the synagogue since the rabbi made the decision to shut it down in 2007 (four years later the Buildings Department issued a vacate order).  During the fall, Ron Castellano and Michael Bolla, who converted The Forward Building to condos, got a rare look at the battered interior.

Yesterday Castellano, an architect specializing in historic restoration (he’s currently converting the Jarmulowsky Bank Building to a hotel), said the synagogue is “an amazing space with great architectural details.”   He’s not an engineer and can’t speak to the building’s stability but noted that there’s broken plaster from the ceilings everywhere and a good deal of water damage.   Previous estimates have put the cost of restoration at $3.5 million or more.  The biggest difficulty, however, is the synagogue’s desire to share the space, which is only about 5,000 square feet. This would, Castellano said, severely limit the options for creating apartments in the remainder of the building.  As noted in the hardship application, there’s nowhere to build on the synagogue site, even though there’s 40,000 square foot of unused air rights on the parcel.  New construction over the synagogue would be a difficult engineering feat, even if the Landmarks Commission gave the okay. The lot behind the synagogue is owned by the Chinese Planning Council.  One day, the social services non-profit plans to build senior housing and a community facility on the site.

The Landmarks Commission is reviewing the hardship application, a painstaking process.  These types of requests from building owners are relatively rare.  Yesterday LPC Spokesperson Lisi de Bourbon said there have been only 18 hardship applications since 1965.  Just 16 have actually gone forward and, of those, 13 have been granted.  The last application came in 2008 when the commission voted to approve St. Vincent Hospital’s bid to demolish its 1964 building in the Village.

Preservation activists are meeting this week to plan strategy.  One major concern is the precedent that could be set if the commission signs off on the demolition of one of the first synagogues in the city to be designated.  They question what faith anyone could have in the landmarks law if that were to occur.

One organization that could exercise a lot of influence in the debate over Beth Hamedrash Hagadol is the New York Landmarks Conservancy.  After a 1997 storm blew out the synagogue’s centerpiece arched window, the conservancy’s Sacred Sites Program provided funding to repair the damage. Later, it provided a grant for a “conditions study” to determine what would be required to fully restore the building.

In a recent interview Ann Friedman, director of the Sacred Sites Program, said her organization is studying the situation and has not yet decided if or how it will respond to the hardship application.  The main question they’re seeking to answer is whether the building can be saved.  The Landmarks Conservancy has a long track record of working with religious institutions to restore distressed buildings.  But she added, “we need a partner, an institution motivated to work towards a solution.”  In the 12 years that the Sacred Sites program has been involved with the Norfolk Street synagogue, Friedman said, there has been no direct contact with the rabbi or anyone else in the congregation.  At the same time, she added, the hardship provision exists for a reason and “makes the landmark law viable.” Friedman’s hope is that the issue can be resolved long before the application gets to the hearing stage.

Beth Hamedrash Hagadol; photo taken in the early 1900’s.

The organization that has worked most closely with the synagogue over the years is the Lower East Side Jewish Conservancy, an arm of the United Jewish Council of the East Side.  Holly Kaye, the founding director, and current Executive Director Laurie Tobias Cohen (along with former UJC Executive Director Joel Kaplan) secured about $1 million in city, state and federal grants for the restoration initiative.  The effort was one of their highest priorities for several years and resulted in a plan that seemed to put the synagogue on a positive path. In 2006, due to the Jewish Conservancy’s campaign, the City Council earmarked $750,000 to make repairs and to establish a visitor center.  New York state awarded the synagogue a $230,000 historic preservation matching grant.  A Lower Manhattan Development Corp. grant paid for a leading architectural firm to draw up plans for the restoration. Much of the money, however,  could not be utilized until the ownership of the synagogue was placed in the hands of a new non-profit corporation, Beth Hamedrash Hagadol Restoration, Inc.  But by the time the synagogue set up the new entity (usually  a straightforward process that took two years), the economy had begun to crater and the city funding was rescinded. Later, Rabbi Greenbaum returned the $230,000 state grant,  saying efforts to raise the matching funds had failed.

Some preservationists believe the synagogue was never fully committed to the restoration project.  They are still haunted by the 2006 collapse and demolition of the First Roumanian Synagogue on Rivington Street.  In that case, they said the congregation refused offers of help. At the same time, they point to other examples in which the Jewish Conservancy successfully partnered with LES synagogues to secure grants at Congregation Kehila Kedosha, the Greek synagogue on Broome Street, the Stanton Street Shul, among others.

Rabbi Greenbaum, however,  is adamant that he’s done everything humanly possible to save his synagogue. Greenbaum notes that he has a deep personal connection to Beth Hamedrash Hagadol.  His father-in-law, the legendary Rabbi Ephraim Oshry, led the synagogue’s campaign for landmark designation 46 years ago.  Greenbaum said he, too, is a preservationist.  He recalled going out onto the building’s front steps to shovel snow.  “Anyone who was involved with us knows that it (the suggestion that the synagogue was not committed to raising restoration funds) is a lie,” he asserted.

Another preservation organization  likely to take a lead in the fight over Beth Hamedrash Hagadol is “Friends of the Lower East Side,” a newly formed group that successfully fought to have the Bialystoker Nursing Home “calendared” for consideration by the Landmarks Preservation Commission.  LES historian Joyce Mendelsohn, one of the organization’s leaders said,  “The request for a demolition permit is part of an epidemic of self-inflicted destruction of Jewish sacred sites occurring on the Lower East Side.  Religious leaders would do well to reflect upon Proverb 22:28, ‘Remove not the ancient landmarks that thy ancestors set up,’ before contemplating the obliteration of a synagogue building that needs to be preserved as a visible link with the Jewish heritage of the neighborhood.”

Heshy Jacob, the longtime board chair of the United Jewish Council, is also alarmed about the prospect that Beth Hamedrash Hagadol could be doomed.  In a phone interview this afternoon, he said, “it is a pity that a synagogue that has been in existence for 130 years and is part of Jewish history cannot be saved.  I’m not condemning anyone and am not blaming anyone but I would like to see someone (with financial resources) step forward with the money to, at least, make the building habitable.”

In the hardship application, the synagogue must prove the state of the building is preventing the organization from “carrying out its charitable purposes.”   Rabbi Greenbaum said the situation is “painful for us and painful for the community.”  The congregation, when it was dispersed following the 2007 closing, consisted of no more than two dozen people.  “I hope the neighborhood will eventually be thankful if we’re able” to re-establish the synagogue, create a museum for the Jews of the Lower East Side and to ultimately do “what serves the community.”