Publication: New Book on Eldridge Street Synagogue Restoration
by Samuel D. Gruber
Beyond the Facade: A Synagogue, a Restoration, a Legacy: the Museum at Eldridge Street by Roberta Brandes Gratz, Larry Bortniker and Bonnie Dimun (Museum at Eldridge Street and Scala Publishing, 2011), highlights the almost thirty-year effort to restore New York's Eldridge Street Synagogue. The new book contains an evocative and informative essay by Roberta Brandes Gratz, one of the initiators of the project and the energetic organizer and definer of the work in its early formative phases. As Gratz writes of this and any similar project "There was no time to be discouraged. Restoring a landmark that has been abandoned by those most connected to it historically is only for the young, the persistent, and the deeply committed, and surely not for the faint of heart."
Ms. Gratz was never faint of heart, and she committed as large chunk of her life to saving the grand synagogue and to recovering and retelling the history of the building, its congregation and its role in the American immigrant saga. Gratz was helped by hundreds along the way, and followed in a leadership role by Amy Waterman who advanced the project in substantial ways - raising new awareness and especially large sums of money through various wards and grants.
Innovative restoration methods were developed, especially the excavation and use of a sub-basement level for new mechanical systems, restroom and other necessities. Bonnie Dimun was date brought in a director in 2007. As she says in her afterward to the book, her mandate was to "Get it Done." In just nine months she did just that, making some tough decisions in order to bring the decades-long project to completion. Since then she and her staff have worked to reinvent the building and the project, including the installation of new "rose" window about the Aron-ha-Kodesh, designed by artist Kiki Smith. The original window was destroyed in the 1930s and after debate, the decision was made not to re-create an approximation (since the original design was not known),but rather to create something entirely new, moving the restoration out of the past and into the present.
Since the 1980s the sustaining narrative at Eldridge was about the restoration itself. Now that the most obvious work is done, the presentation has had to shift. Continuing a process begun under Ms. Waterman, Eldridge is now as much about history, family, neighborhood, immigration and cultural life as about architecture and restoration. The new window in the thinking of the project's new leadership bridges the generations. Importantly, in regard to audience, it makes the synagogue both a sacred historic site and a vibrant contemproary art space, too.
This new book doesn't dwell on such issues. It is essentially an annotated photo album of the restoration process that makes it hard to forget all the hard work that lies behind the synagogue's present-day pristine appearance - no matter what direction the building and musuem head in future years. These pictures will make hard to forget how dilapidated the building, now so intact, once was.
Every restoration project should keep such an album, even they cannot afford in the end to publish. With online construction blogs and You-tube posts it is easy to record the process of restoration. The process itself is part of the purpose. At Eldridge Street and elsewhere the process - especially when it is a long one - allows the opportunity to explore and educate, to advocate and debate and to plan for building use for a long sustainable future.
In Gratz's words "Actually, the slow road to success worked in our favor. We had time to do serious historical research about both the building and the people who used it. If we had had all the money early, we might have ruined the building, replaced things that could have been salvaged, refinished others that could have been conserved and in many ways, erased the patina of time. In the mid-1980s the world of historic preservation, restoration, and conservation was not nearly at its current level of sophistication and nuance."
I first visited the restoration at Eldridge in 1989 soon after I began work as the Director of the Jewish Heritage Council of the World Monuments Fund (WMF). Though WMF chose to look abroad for its Jewish heritage projects - especially after 1989 to Eastern Europe, the image and influence of Eldridge were strongly felt. Conservators, activists and historians from Eastern Europe attending WMF's Future of Jewish Monuments conference in New York in November 1990 visited the restoration and came away educated and inspired.
Soon after, when WMF undertook the restoration of the great Tempel Synagogue in Krakow, Poland, we looked to the Eldridge experience for method. Since then, scores of restoration projects in the U.S. and abroad influenced by the example of Eldridge were completed - ironically long before the actual re-dedication of the Lower East Side synagogue in 2007. Still, they owe a lot to Eldridge as the Jewish monument restoration laboratory par excellance.
This new book is not a history of the synagogue - Annie Polland's Landmark of the Spirit already covers that ground. Neither is it a primer on restoration; a series of specialized conservation studies and reports; or a critical review of the the various stages of work at Eldridge. It is, however, a beautiful and celebratory testimony to the long and difficult work done on the building - an achievement that many people in the 1980s, when it all began, believed a crazy endeavor that would never end. Along the way there were rough patches, some bruised egos, dismissed architects, strained friendships and professional disagreements. But through it all there remained a constancy of vision, an optimism of spirit and a tenacity of commitment that
has hardly been equaled in the annals of historic preservation.
To the hundreds of professionals and volunteers who have worked on the Eldridge Street Project and the thousands of financial contributors to the resotration: Congratulations!