Wednesday, December 19, 2012

USA: Time to Designate the Biaystoker Home a New York City Landmark

New York, NY. The Bialystoker Home, main entrance. Photo: Samuel Gruber (2005)

USA: Time to Designate the Biaystoker Home a New York City Landmark 
 by Samuel D. Gruber

One of the most distinctive buildings on the Lower East Side - Jewish or otherwise - is the Bialystoker Home at 228 East Broadway, known officially in its last years as the Bialystoker Center for Nursing and Rehabilitation, located nor far from another distinctive landmark and secular tower - the former Forward Building at Straus Square, now re-purposed as condominium apartments. 

Opened on June 21, 1931, the Bialystoker carries the residual optimism found in so much of New York's architecture of the late 1920s, planned before the November 1929 stock market crash and the subsequent Great Depression.  At the same time, the very purpose of the home was to provide care for elderly, mostly immigrant Jews, who could not manage to care of themselves.  This growing population was already recognized as needy and under-serviced during the period of post-World War I prosperity. 

New York, NY. The Bialystoker Home. Harry Hurwit, arch., 1930-31.  Photo: Samuel Gruber (2005)  

The 10-story Bialystoker tower stands out architecturally as an exemplar of the embrace of the modern and Art Deco styles by New York's Jews (think of the office skyscrapers of Ely Jacques Kahn and Irwin Chanin) but also as an important and successful social experiment.  The Bialystoker is the physical manifestation of the shift in the charitable impulses of the late 19th-century landsmanshaft groups to more modern community-wide social services.  For the first time, place-based immigrant groups (led by the many Bialystoker organizations) pooled their resources to provide a necessary charitable service available to all needy Jews.  This style of care, already known in uptown Jewish hospitals such as Sinai and Montefiore, was new on the Lower East Side.  And while those earlier institutions had been founded by New York's German-speaking Jewish population, the success of the Bialystoker Home was due entirely to "Polish" Jews.

When the Bialystoker Home opened The New York Times reported that “Twenty-five years to the day after many of their number had fled from a pogrom in Bialystok, Poland, more than 5,000 Jews crowded East Broadway between Clinton and Montgomery Streets…and witnessed the opening and dedication of the $500,000 Bialystoker Home for the Aged.”   President Franklin Roosevelt and other  officials sent congratulatory telegrams.  Representative Samuel Dickstein  saw in the home evidence that the Jews had always “taken care of their own people, without calling upon the government to find a place for the orphans and the aged.”

The home provided for 250 residents and included an auditorium, dormitories, two synagogues, sun parlors and hospital wards. It later added assisted living options for elderly so that they could continue to socialize as part of the neighborhood’s fabric.

Read more about the history of the Bialystoker home here.

The building was designed by Harry Hurwit (1888-1963), a Jewish architect who was also a local boy; he grew up on the Lower East Side.  According to the Friends of the Bialystoker Home, Hurwit was veteran of several battles of World War I and was able to attend Cooper Union after the war.  After graduation, he established his own firm where designed he residential, institutional and commercial buildings. Hurwit is best known for the Bialystoker Home, one of his last fully realized buildings.  After the onset of the Great Depression, he made a living with small jobs and building alterations.  Harry Hurwit remained involved with the Lower East Side community throughout his life.  He was a member of the Educational Alliance, the Grand Street Boys Association and the Veterans of Foreign Wars.  Several of his descendants have joined the campaign to save the Bialystoker Center and Home.

Hurwit managed to create a very multi-functional building that is also one of the more striking Art Deco buildings in the city, seemingly both intimate and tall at the same time.  This is due in part to the building's narrow facade, and also to the fact that it's ten stories - while puny compared to Wall Street or midtown towers - was quite high on the Lower East Side in 1931.  Perhaps a timeless quality is intended by the inclusion of roundels in which symbols in relief of the Twelve Tribes of Israel surround the main entrance portal, or the message may be more explicitly Zionist.  And perhaps just as the charitable program of the Home competed with uptown precursors, the builders of the Home were also inspired by the inclusion of sign of the Twelve Tribes  on the great bronze doors of Uptown's newest marvel - the grand Temple Emanuel on Fifth Avenue, completed in January 1930.  There, we find the symbols of the tribes - with very similar depictions - suggesting a common source for both representations. 

 New York, NY. The Bialystoker Home. Harry Hurwit, arch., 1930-31.  Photo: Samuel Gruber (2005) 

The Symbols of the Twelve Tribes are described in detail in an article by Richard McBee “The Twelve Tribes At The Bialystoker Home” The Jewish Press (3/15/2012), who was asssisted by the research of Elissa Sampson.  McBee writes:

The images are ensconced in roundels that approximate a Hebraic formulation (right to left) of Jacob’s “blessings” found at the end of Genesis. They start on the right with the first born, Reuben, travel up, cross the transept and down the left side to the final child, Benjamin

The exact order and most of the images actually follows the Midrash Rabbah on Numbers 2:2 that expands on the arrangement of the tribes around the Tent of Meeting in the wilderness; “The Children of Israel shall encamp, each man by his banner according to the insignias of their fathers’ household.” This midrash codifies the information from Jacob’s blessings (Genesis 49) and Moses’ blessings (Deuteronomy 33) into a blueprint for the color and image for each tribe’s flag or symbol.

At the base of each side panel there are stylized representations of the Temple Menorah superimposed over a Star of David/pyramid design anchored by schematic sunrises. These images link this building on East Broadway with both the ancient Temple and the growing Zionist movement in Palestine. Reuben’s mandrakes, a gift of fertility for both his mother and Rachel, effectively sidesteps Jacob’s stinging castigation. Simon is represented by a massive city gate, alluding to the city of Shechem, while Levi gets off scot-free with a depiction of the High Priest’s breastplate, the Choshen HaMishpat that contained the Urim and Tumin. The right side panel is then completed with the Lion of Judah confirming Jacob’s blessing of kingship to his fourth born son.
  New York, NY. The Bialystoker Home. Harry Hurwit, arch., 1930-31.  Photo: Samuel Gruber (2005)

The Bialystoker Home is already listed on the the National Register of Historic Places, but the honorific offers no real protection to the structure, though the designation will allow a future developer the advantage of historic preservation tax credits for any project that maintains the character of the building.   Local residents - many of whom have labored for years to protect and preserve some of the historic character of the Lower East Side, have been especially concerned  since the closing of the Bialystoker Home in 2011 about its  possible sale to a tear-down developer who would replace it with a luxury condo.  The Friends of the Bialystoker Home was formed and has been active in promoting the preservation of this historic building, including lining up endorsement for Landmark designation. 

After a long wait, The Landmarks Preservation Commission last week calendared the Bialystoker Home and the New York Public Library, Seward Park Branch, the 1909 building that like the Bialystoker home has long been central to the identity of the neighborhood.  They are the last remaining historic buildings on the north side of East Broadway.  Public hearings on these two buildings have not yet been scheduled, but now is the time for those who wish to see these building preserved to weigh in.

Friends of the Bialystoker Home urges supporters of the building's landmark designation to write letter to:

Hon. Robert B. Tierney, Chair,
NYC Landmarks Preservation Commission.
1 Centre St. 9th floor
New York, N.Y. 10007  or
Please cc the organization at:

New York, NY. The Bialystoker Home. Harry Hurwit, arch., 1930-31.  Photo: Samuel Gruber (2005)

In related news, this month the New York Landmarks Preservation Commission approved plans for the restoration of the Jarmulowsky Bank, the third "Jewish tower" in the neighborhood.  The plans, which include rooftop modifications but are mostly aimed at returning the structure to its original 1912 glory.  The former Jarmulowsky Bank building will become a boutique hotel.   A successful effort to protect the building was undertaken in 2009.  

Sunday, December 9, 2012

USA: New York's Moorish Masters

New York, NY. Former congregation Shaare Zedek of Harlem, 25 West 118th Street. Schneider & Herter, architects (1900).  Photo: Samuel D. Gruber 2012  

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 a 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.

 New York, NY. Temple Beth El.  Brunner & Tryon, architects (1891)

 New York, NY. Former Congregation Shaaray Tefilla, (West End Synagogue). Brunner & Tryon, architects (1894). Photo: Samuel D. Gruber.

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.

New York, NY.  Park East Synagogue.  Schneider & Herter, architect.  Note distinctive baldachin structure over gable.  It and tall towers have been removed.  From Kings Handbook of New York (1893)

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. 

New York, NY.  Top: Park East Synagogue.  Bottom: Cong. Shaare Zedek, Schneider & Herter, archs.  Photos: Samuel D. Gruber .

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).

New York, NY. Beth HaMidrash HaGadol.  Remodeled by Schnieider & Herter 1893 ff. Note the baldachin with Moorish elements (now removed), similar to Zichron Ephriam (above). Photo: Jewish Encyclopedia.

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.

New York, NY. Former congregation Shaare Zedek of Harlem, 25 West 118th Street. Schneider & Herter, architects (1900).  Photo: Samuel D. Gruber 2012 

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.