At the turn of the 20th century, the Lower East Side emerged as the most densely populated Jewish community on the planet! Running for their lives, escaping pogroms and prosecution, more than 2.5 million Jews immigrated to America; nearly 85 percent of them came to New York City, with the vast majority settling on the Lower East Side. New arrivals were poor and could not afford to build synagogues; instead, they repurposed them from other structures – event halls, storefronts, or even old churches.
The magnificent Eldridge Street Synagogue has the distinction of being the first synagogue in America, built specifically as a house of worship by Eastern European Jews.
The synagogue was designed by the architectural firm of the Herter Brothers . Peter and Francis William Herter were Catholic and emigrated from Germany in 1884. Even though they had never built a synagogue before, they secured the contract for the Eldridge Street Synagogue just a couple of years after their arrival from Germany.
They chose to design it in the Moorish Revival style with sweeping arches, marble columns, 68 magnificent stained-glass rose windows, a 70-foot high vaulted ceiling with hand-painted gilded stars, brass and glass chandeliers, and hand-stenciled walls. The facade is full of symbolism: there are 12 rondels for the 12 tribes of Israel, five arches for the five Books of Moses, and four wooden doors for the four matriarchs. The Stars of David adorned the Synagogue’s rooftop towers and were etched into its wooden front doors. The architects were hailed by critics and subsequently received many commissions designing tenement buildings on the Lower East Side. “Herter Bros” were praised for designing a better class of tenements. Their well-lit and ventilated buildings were a considerable improvement over the previous tenement dwelling. Herter Brothers built as many as 50 tenement buildings throughout the Lower East Side, immediately recognizable by the Stars of David on the facades, their trademark, which echoed the decorations of the Eldridge Street Synagogue.
Following the introduction of the 1924 Immigrant Quota Laws, immigration declined. The population of the Lower East Side diminished, and the congregation’s numbers dwindled. The remains of the community continued to worship in the building but could no longer afford to maintain the grand main sanctuary. In the 1940s, it was closed and slowly deteriorated. At that time, the original east rose window was damaged by the weather and, since no drawings or photographs of it survived, was lost forever.
In 2010, the Museum commissioned a new east rose window by artist Kiki Smith and architect Deborah Gans. The stunning blue stain-glass window reflects the ideas of the Synagogue’s original historic interior design. The stars bleed from the wall into the window. They are hand-painted with silver stain or gold leaf and shine brilliantly illuminated by the outside light. The six points of the central Star of David extend into ribs that repeat the pattern in the ceiling.
Luckily, in 1996 the Eldridge Street Synagogue was designated a National Historic Landmark and fully restored by 2007. The building was rededicated as the Museum at Eldridge Street and functions now as both a house of worship and a museum.