Saturday, July 12, 2008

Synagogues now Churches

NY Times Story and On-line Presentation Gives a Close-up to Former Synagogues now Needy Churches
by Samuel D. Gruber

Throughout the United States there are hundreds of former synagogues that are now churches. No one knows how many...I keep my own lists but they are woefully incomplete. In each city one can usually find an historian, preservationist or journalist who has a pretty good idea and in the right circumstances can help set up a tour, or at least provide a list of addresses.

But in New York City, and particularly in Brooklyn, this is hard work. Until this year nobody had reliable lists of even the extant synagogues, let alone the former ones, and no one that I know of had visited many of these buildings in recent years.

In 2007, the New York Landmarks Conservancy began a systematic survey of "historic" synagogues in New York - ones that might be eligible for preservation grants. This is part of a larger multi-year effort to survey all the religious buildings in New York City, something that has been talked about for years but only now with the Conservancy's work does it seem to be seriously underway. For synagogues, already the Conservancy team has visited scores of synagogues in Brooklyn and a much smaller number in Queens. I had the privilege to tag along as an "advisor" a bit last summer, and even in those short visits I was impressed by the quality of previously “undocumented” synagogues, and the richness of their decoration - and particularly the stained glass.

Even the Conservancy survey has not yet visited all the many former synagogues that are now churches - usually serving small independent Protestant congregations - especially Baptist - and increasing Pentecostal and other charismatic sects, as well as Jehovah's Witness congregations. And these buildings are often the ones that need the most care, because they are run independently, often without regular membership and funding, and because they were often bought by their new congregations when they were old and cheap, and maintenance and expensive repairs have often been deferred for years.

In thinking about the problems of these congregations, and the often seemingly irresolvable state of repair of their (often once-impressive) buildings, I re-read the excellent New York Times story by David Gonzalez that ran this past January 28th (2008). Gonzalez and photographer Ruth Fremson take the reader into two of these congregations - the well-maintained Linden Church of Seventh-day Adventists in Queens (formerly Laurelton Jewish Center) and the large and dilapidated St Timothy Holy Church in Brownsville, Brooklyn (formerly the Amboy Street Shul), and present their difficult situations in a broader context.

Since - when the New York Times is concerned - I'm still a print guy, I did not notice that the author and photographer had posted an audio-visual presentation on-line that presents even more - especially visually - of the story. Ms. Fremson's photos are especially noteworthy and should be more widely seen.

Below is a link to the story. Click the modest link to the audio-visual presentation under the second photo. Watch the slides at full screen for best effect. My compliments to Mr. Gonzalez and to Ms. Fremson. We need more main-stream media stories about the plight of our religious buildings. Whether we are religious or not, we must recognize that these buildings carry much of our history and art, and importantly stand as architectural landmarks - centers of gravity, if you will - in countless urban neighborhoods across America. We must first document these buildings, and then where possible, assist to protect them a preserve them for present and future use.

(More on how we can do this in future posts)

Once a Synagogue, Now a Church, and Ailing Quitely
New York Times, Published: January 28, 2008

For more on the Sacred Sites Program of the New York Landmarks Conservancy see:

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