New York's Moorish Masters
by Samuel D. Gruber
I recently had the good fortune on an early morning walk through Harlem (New York) to have bright sunlight illuminating the facade of the former Congregation Shaare Zedek at 25 West 118 Street (above), one of the many former Harlem synagogues that have served as churches for much of the last century. The building was erected in 1900 as branch of the successful congregation that still maintained a presence downtown. In this sense it was similar to new (21st century) facilities built in suburbs and exurbs by contemporary congregations that haven't quite made the decision to pick of stakes from an historic location and move. The Shaare Zedek facility could hold on to displaced congregants while still not fully committing to a new neighborhood. In the end, Shaaray Zedek only used its new building for 14 years. It became the Canaan Baptist Church and today it is the Bethel Way of the Cross Church of Christ.
New York, NY. Former congregation Shaare Zedek of Harlem, 25 West 118th Street. Schneider & Herter, architects (1900). Photo: Samuel D. Gruber 2012
While breaking new (Jewish) ground far Uptown, Shaare Zedek of Harlem was architecturally and liturgically conservative. It is one of the last in a line of Moorish Revival style synagogues built in Manhattan beginning with Temple Emanu-el in the 1860s. Today, the best remembered are three standing and still Jewish buildings - the great Central Synagogue (Congregation Ahavath Chesed) designed by Henry Fernbach and erected in 1872, the impressive Eldridge Street Synagogue ( K'hal Adath Jeshurun) built in 1887 by Peter and Francis Herter, and the Park East Synagogue (Cong. Zichron Ephraim) built by Ernest E. W. Schneider and Henry J. Herter in 1890-91.
To these might be added the magnificent Beth El Synagogue designed by a still-young Arnold W. Brunner (with Thomas Tryon) and dedicated in 1891 (demolished in 1947), and the former Congregation Shaaray Tefilla, (West End Synagogue), 166 W. 82nd St., (1894), also be Brunner & Tryon, and now the Ukrainian Orthodox Autocephalic Church. The relationship of these buildings to each other is complex, and relationship of the architects still undetermined. Brunner's buildings are not truly Moorish; the semi-circular arches, rustication and other elements link them more to medieval revival styles (Beth El has Richardsonian and Ruskinian parentage) and Shaaray Tefilla is also strongly shaped by Venetian architecture. Still, I think the public at the time would have had difficulty distinguishing between a highly decorative and eclectic Medieval style and a decorative Moorish. All were highly decorative and sufficiently exotic not to be confused with traditional Christian church design.
Already when Shaare Zedek opened, Brunner was writing in the first volume of The Jewish Encyclopedia (1901) that "There has been much divergence of taste in the building of synagogues; but a vague Oriental tendency can generally be noticed in all of them. The preference for the Moorish style, at one time so much in favor, seems to have passed away, experience having shown it to be eminently unsuitable and un-Jewish" (Arnold W. Brunner, "America, Jewish Architecture," The Jewish Encyclopedia, Vol. 1, p. 508). Thus for Brunner, who had repudiated the Moorish style and had re-introduced full-blown classicism to American synagogue architecture for America's oldest congregation Shearith Israel in 1897, Shaare Zedek in Harlem was already "eminently unsuitable and un-Jewish" when built. While the congregation no doubt disagreed, they only stayed the building for fourteen years before moving to the Upper West Side, where they erected an impressive Classical Temple style synagogue (in keeping with Brunner's ideas) on West 93rd Street designee by Sommerfeld and Steckler.
So far in my research, only Arnold W. Brunner has emerged as a distinct personality with now-clearly understood links to multiple branches of New York's Jewish community (Sephardi, Ashkenazi, Reform and Orthodox). Despite much research effort by others, the Herter Brothers of Eldridge Street remain something of a mystery. Except that we know they were Catholic and designed many tenement buildings, their place in the New York architectural and Jewish worlds in the late 19th-century is sketchy. Relatively little is known, too, of Schneider and (Henry J.) Herter. They too, designed scores of residential buildings, but these included higher-end houses for the professional classes on the burgeoning Upper West Side. They also worked on at least four synagogues, of which the two already mentioned are among the most distinctive Moorish Revival style building in the city.
Known as the firm of Schneider & Herter; the company began as Schneider & Co., and was later listed as the Schneider & Herter Building and Construction Company (1909). Though they worked extensively for German-Jewish patrons, such as Jonas Weil and Bernard Mayer, it is unlikely (but not impossible) that either Schneider or Herter was Jewish. They also designed at least one German church (the Gothic-style St. Paul's German Evangelical Lutheran Church), which suggests their German origin, and that their connection to local Jews was based on common German language and culture rather than religion.
For Weil and Mayer they designed numerous multiple dwellings and it is through Weil that they become associated with Congregation Zichron Ephraim (Park East Synagogue) at 163 East 67th Street (1889–90), which was funded by Weil.
Schneider and Herter were successful developers of residential properties in New York, especially tenements in the lower East Side, and also housing the Greenwich Village and later uptown along Riverside Drive and 93rd Street. Many of their distinctive houses have been designated singly or within historic districts as New York City landmarks. There is more of their work still to be identified.
According to the 1990 Upper West Side Historic District designation report
"Schneider & Herter developed a somewhat idiosyncratic and mannerist aesthetic characterized by a lack of reverence for the traditional placement of ornament, an unexpected combining of architectural styles, and asymmetry in the composition of facades and their detailing; these characteristics appear in the firm's early designs for tenements, rowhouses and synagogues. In the ornamental programs of several buildings, including the 858 West End Avenue House, Schneider & Herter combined incised, machine-cut ornament— recalling the earlier Neo-Grec style of incised ornament — with both abstracted naturalistic designs and romantic figurative carving. An uncommon approach to the composition and placement of ornament appears in the design of the entrance where the architects combined pilasters with the projecting balcony above to suggest an entrance portico."The pair were designers of a series of notable but often overlooked synagogues, including a number of impressive and architecturally distinctive houses of worship of Orthodox (and nascent) Conservative congregations. In 1889-1890 they designed the Landmark Moorish style, but idiosyncratic Congregation Zichron Ephriam, best known as Park East Synagogue.
In 1892 they apparently designed Congregation Kol Israel Arshi at 20-22 Forsyth Street (demolished, presumably for the construction of the Manhattan Bridge ca. 1910). In 1893 they were called upon to strengthen and remodel Beth HaMidrash Hagadol synagogue on the Lower East Side, which had previously been a Baptist and then a Methodist Church (For a full account see: National Register of Historic Places Nomination, Beth Hamedrash Hagodol Synagogue, NPS Forms 10-900/10-900a, United States Department of the Interior, National Park Service, June 30, 1999).
In 1900 the firm was commissioned to design the new home of Congregation Shaare Zedek at 118th and Lenox Avenue (see: Real Estate Record and Builders' Guide, Volume 64 (Oct 14 1899) p. 551) in the expanding Jewish neighborhood of Harlem. That building is also Moorish in style, but also owes its form to the common two-tower synagogue-type familiar in 19th century Europe and America in a wide range of historicist styles. The building subsequently became the Canaan Baptist Church, and is now the Bethel Way of the Cross, Church of Christ.
To my knowledge, there is no compiled biography for either Ernest Schneider or Henry Herter. Schneider may have come to New York from Erie, Pennsylvania, where an Ernest E. W. Schnieder is listed as a architect and supervisor of building in 1884 (Erie Morning Dispatch; Erie, Erie Co. PA; April 22, 1884). I have not yet found information on his life after 1909, or an obituary. I wonder if there is a family connection with the architect Walter Schneider who was involved in the design of several important post-World War I Byzantine/Moorish style synagogues in New York; most notably B'nai Jeshurun (1916-18), designed with Henry B. Herts. Walter Schneider WAS Jewish, and with Herts, a member of B'nai Jeshurun. If he was related to Ernest E.W. Schneider (a son or nephew?) that would considerably change our understanding of the Schneider and Herter. In a sense, Walter Schneider continued the favored synagogue style of Schneider & Herter, so it is attractive- - though entirely unproven - to find more than a stylistic connection between the two firms.
We also know very little about Henry J. Herter. He was not, presumably, related to the famous Herter Brothers furniture designers, nor was he one of the Catholic Herter Brothers (responsible for the design of the Eldridge Street Synagogue in 1884). In 1903 a Henry J. Herter was living at the Antoinettes at 51-53 East 58th Street. Herter is described as secretary and treasurer of the Herter Realty Co., which was owner of the apartment building. The Schneider and Herter Building and Construction Co. at 1741 Topping Ave., New York, remained in business into the 20th century and is listed in The Trow (formerly Wilson's) Copartnership and Corporation Directory of New York City of 1909.
For an upcoming article ("Moorish Across America") I welcome information and impressions about any of the above mention buildings and architects, and other Oriental or Moorish synagogues across America.