Tuesday, October 6, 2009

USA: Harlem's Baptist Temple Church, formerly Congregation Ohab Zedek is Partly Demolished

New York, NY. Baptist Temple Church during demolition. Photo: Austin2Harlem

New York, NY. Congregation Ohab Zedek, from When Harlem was Jewish by Jeffrey S. Gurock.

New York, NY. Baptist Temple Church before demolition. Note removal of Jewish symbols from facade.
Photo: unsourced from web

USA: Harlem's Baptist Temple Church, formerly Congregation Ohab Zedek is Partly Demolished

(ISJM) Last week city workmen torn down part of the facade and roof of the former Congregation Ohab Zedek at 18 West 116th Street in Harlem New York The structure has served a Baptist Temple Church for more than a half century. The New York City Department of Buildings took action because of structural damage to the church. There was a large crack running through the top part of the facade which the city feared would collapse. The cause of the crack is undetermined, but it may be in part the result of destabilization caused by the considerable construction work in the neighborhood in recent years, including the a large apartment building erected immediacy to the east of the 1906 brick sanctuary.

At the time of writing it is not clear what the future hold for the building. The only likelihood of rebuilding would be if the damage caused by the crack and subsequent demolition is covered by insurance. Even if that is the case, it is unlikely that insurance would cover any subsequent damage caused by the building's being opened to the elements. It is reported that the roof over the far end of the sanctuary remains intact.

You can see pictures of the demolition at two sites online:



Congregation Ohab Zedek was one of the many synagogue founded in Harlem at the beginning of the 20th century. 1906 was also the year the construction began on nearby Temple Israel, now Mt. Olivet Baptist Church.

For the Jewish history of the neighborhood the best source remains Jeffrey S. Gurock, When Harlem Was Jewish, 1870- 1930 (New York: Columbia University Press, 1979). An overview of the former synagogues in the area can found online in David Dunlap's 2002 New York Times article "Vestiges of Harlem's Jewish Past" (New York Times, Friday, June 7, 2002)

Ohab Zedek was founded by Hungarian Jews who had moved north from the Lower East Side. The congregation modernized with the new buildng, hiring its first English-speaking rabbi and introducing wildly popular Yossele Rosenblatt as its cantor.

Across the 116th Street, according to Dunlap, at "at No. 37, is the Salvation and Deliverance Church. This was once Rabbi Herbert S. Goldstein's Institutional Synagogue, which drew new generations to Orthodoxy by offering social, educational and recreational services, inspiring a phenomenon known as the ''shul with the pool.'' Goldstein held huge youth rallies in a nearby theater."

This demolition calls to mind the collapse and consequent demolition of the First Roumanian Congregation on the Lower East Side, and points out how threatened many older religious buildings are. Even building that are in use and seem viable can be overwhelmed by catastrophe in an instant, and not survive the blow. To my knowledge Baptist Temple Church was never fully documented - all churches and synagogues should be both for history and for their own insurance purposes.


Hels said...

I have looked at the outside of Congregation Ohab Zedek that was built in 1906. But it is not clear what sort of architectural style the architect and congregation were going for. Were they modelling this shule on an existing shule, in New York or anywhere else for that matter?

It is a tragedy when old buildings are destroyed but a] this one was used as a church for much longer than it was used as a shule and b] it didn't look wonderful from the outside, as far as I can see. Of course the inside might have been sensational like, for example, The Great Synagogue Sydney:

If I had limited resources for restoration, I would focus on the buildings that have the greatest historical and architectural merit.

I saw buildings in Eastern Europe that were used as tyre shops or pig pens :(

Art and Architecture, mainly

Samuel Gruber said...

The value of this building is probably more for the neighborhood and for the existing church congregation than for the history of architecture. I don't know who designed it, and have never been inside so can't speak to either its original interior or how it was subsequently modified for church use. I do think it is shame that much of the streetscape of this neighborhood has been altered by not very attractive new construction. Still, overall, this part of South Harlem has been regenerated in a way few would have anticipated when I lived in New york from the 1970s to the early 1990s.

As for the style - its certainly quite eclectic. There are the two big side towers which were a common in late 19th century synagogue design - probably influenced by descriptions and architectural (on paper) reconstructions of Solomon's Temple. The big slight flattened almost collegiate Gothic arch is quite unexpected. It recall some contemporary theater design more than anything I'm familiar with in synagogue. Then, within this big arch s set a little classical entrance way - clearly a nod to the newly popular Roman style which can be vied just around the corner on a grand scale of the former Temple Israel.

No matter what happens to the building, my hope is that the present situation will allow us to learn more about it. For the sake of the church, I hope they can recoup funds to repair their home. You are certainly correct there is as much or more church history in this building as Jewish history. But its history nonetheless, and history of Harlem's heyday as the Black capital of America, and it would be a shame to lose that for the sake of expediency rather than real need. I expect a real estate developer will be offering a handsome price to the congregation for the property and the right to demolish.

Thanks for being such a good reader of my blog!