Beth Hamerdash Hagodol

Landmarks approves partial demolition of Lower East Side synagogue destroyed by fire

East Preservation
Aerial view of Beth Hamedrash Hagodol Synagogue after the fire. (Courtesy HLZA / Image via LPC)
Aerial view of Beth Hamedrash Hagodol Synagogue after the fire. (Courtesy HLZA / Image via LPC)

Update 7/12/17: The article was updated to clarify the resolution the commissioners voted on yesterday afternoon.

On Tuesday the Landmarks Preservation Commission (LPC) debated how to preserve a Manhattan synagogue gutted by fire earlier this year. Instead of approving the owner’s request to demolish the building entirely, the commission agreed that important parts of the structure should be salvaged, where possible.

The building in question is the Beth Hamerdash Hagodol, at 60 Norfolk Street on the Lower East Side. The modified Gothic Revival–style structure was built in 1850 as a Baptist church and converted to a synagogue in 1885. Home to a Russian Jewish Orthodox congregation for more than a century but vacant since 2007, it was one of the first structures added to New York’s landmark list, in 1967.

(Courtesy Howard Zimmerman Architects / Image via LPC)

Beth Hamerdash Hagodol interior after the fire. (Courtesy HLZA / Image via LPC)

In May, the building was destroyed by a blaze that was later characterized as arson; it’s missing its roof and most of the interior is filled with rubble. Given the extensive damage, the hearing focused on whether the building has enough integrity to remain an individual landmark, and if so, how its structure should be preserved.

(Courtesy Howard Zimmerman Architects / Image via LPC)

Plan view. (Courtesy HLZA / Image via LPC)

In testimony to the commission, Bryan Chester, an engineer from Howard L. Zimmerman Architects, detailed the shul’s precarious structural integrity. The wooden roof trusses are “beyond repair,” while the masonry bearing walls are unstable and severely deteriorated. Of the two towers that flanked the main (west) entrance, the northern one is in bad shape, but the south and east facades, though unstable, are in slightly better condition. The building had no fire insurance, and the extent of the damages put restoration out of the question—any materials above the window sills would probably be unsalvageable, Chester said.

Areas in red were deemed beyond repair, though the south and east facades could be saved in some form. (Courtesy Howard Zimmerman Architects / Image via LPC)

Areas in red were deemed beyond repair, though the south and east facades could be saved in some form. (Courtesy HLZA / Image via LPC)

On the whole, those who testified before the commission advocated against demolition and for preservation in some form.

Simeon Bankoff, executive director of preservation group Historic Districts Council, said the group “strenuously objects” to demolition, while noting that the owner’s negligence over the years shouldn’t be rewarded with a tear-down. The synagogue is on a prime lot on the Lower East Side, a district that by some measures is one of Manhattan’s most gentrified.

Speaking for Friends of the Lower East Side, a group that preserves the architectural and cultural heritage of the neighborhood, Joyce Mendelsohn said the group was in “total opposition” to demolition. Andrea Goldman of the New York Landmarks Conservancy agreed, noting that years before the fire, the preservation advocacy group had worked with the congregation to come up with an action plan for the building, which was in poor repair. (Right before the blaze, the synagogue had almost reached a deal with the Chinese American Planning Council, a nonprofit that owns two neighboring sites, to restore the building and erect affordable housing.)

Considering the state of the structure, demolition seemed a done deal, but the LPC commissioners were hesitant to okay the applicant’s request in light of the building’s cultural significance. Scaffolding surrounds the ruins; right now, there’s little danger the remaining structure could topple, but Chester said that in a few more months the situation could be more dangerous.

So what could be salvaged, and how should the building’s heritage honored?

Landmarks hired engineers at Superstructures to independently evaluate the site. The firm concurred with the Zimmerman team that the south and east facades, though unstable, were repairable. The demolition team would deploy tall machines to take the synagogue apart from the top down, a process Chester likened to dinosaurs chomping on trees. But commissioners had questions: What if the crew destroys more of the remains than necessary? What if the building could be preserved and appreciated like Roman or Mayan ruins, or the Carmo Convent in Lisbon?

“I’m unconvinced of the absolute necessity for demolition,” said Commissioner Michael Devonshire, even when taking into account the building’s unstable walls. Fellow Commissioner Frederick Bland added that the group needed to “see what’s left and re-assess” after the structure has been stabilized.

At the meeting, the commissioners decided to preserve, where feasible, the building’s most important elements, but did not vote up/down on the owner’s demolition bid. Instead, LPC general council Mark Silberman was asked to draft a resolution on the project that modified the owner’s request. The resolution states that parts of the building need to be removed for safety reasons, especially around the north, south, and west facades, while retaining as much material as possible, with significant architectural features salvaged. The whole process will be overseen on-site by the LPC’s engineers. It was approved yesterday afternoon.

Edward Gunts contributed reporting.

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