Tuesday, July 4, 2017

USA: The Sad Ruins of New York's Beth HaMidrash HaGadol

New York. NY. Ruins of Beth HaMidrash HaGadol after May 14, 2017 fire. Photo: Samuel D. Gruber 2017
New York. NY. Ruins of Beth HaMidrash HaGadol after May 14, 2017 fire. Photo: Samuel D. Gruber 2017
USA: The Sad Ruins of New York's Beth HaMidrash HaGadol
by Samuel D. Gruber

[n.b. this post has been edited and expanded on July 5, 2017]

Visiting New York last week, I confronted the recent fiery destruction of Beth HaMidrash HaGadol [n.b. the name of also often spelled Beth Hamedrash Hagodol] formerly one of the grandest and most storied Orthodox synagogues of New York's Lower East Side. The large two-towered building, built as a church in 1848-50 and subsequently purchased and converted to use as a Russian Orthodox synagogue in 1885,  irrevocably burned on May 14, 2017. 

New York. NY. Beth HaMidrash HaGadol at the beginning of the 20th century. Photo: Jewish Encyclopedia
New York. NY. Beth HaMidrash HaGadol in 1999. Photo: Samuel D. Gruber 1999.
New York. NY. Beth HaMidrash HaGadol, sanctuary interior.

The synagogue remained in good condition through most the tenure of Rabbi Ephraim Oshry, a Holocaust survivor of the Kovno Ghetto, who wrote The Annihilation of Lithuanian Jewry, who presided there from 1952 until his death in 2003. The building began to seriously deteriorate in the 1990s. The fate of the synagogue has been in jeopardy for at least a decade, and it had been closed since 2007. Rabbi Mendel Greenbaum, seemingly acting on his own, filed a “hardship application” with the Landmarks Preservation Commission in December 2012 seeking permission to demolish the building to allow for residential development. Previously, in 2009, 3 congregants held a meeting in which they agreed to sell the building for $10 to Beth HaMidrash Restoration Inc., a Type "C" charitable corporation under section 201 under NYS not-for-profit state law. in which 3 people were named as officers of Beth HaMidrash Restoration Inc. One of these individuals died in 2014 (you need to have at least 3 board members). 

In my experience, it is reasonable to assume that a non-religious charitable organization of a "Friends of" type, separate from the religious organization, would be needed to seek and receive certain types of grants and reach a larger donor pool, such groups are usually established by the IRS as 501 (c) charities, not the less transparent New York State "201 (C)". While admittedly not-for-profit law is complex, it seems to me that a 201 (C) is more likely to be part of a housing redevelopment project than one for renewal or restoration of an historic religious property. On the other hand, it may be much quicker to set up a the NYC charity than go through the IRS filing and review. 

According to an article by Allegra Hobbs:
[Rabbi] Greenbaum said he had been in talks shortly before the fire to sell the synagogue's air rights to developer Gotham Development, an arrangement that would ensure repairs for the house of worship. The deal would also facilitate the development of affordable housing and a community center on a neighboring property owned by the Chinese-American Planning Council, which runs the senior center next door.
It seems to me that while now it is possible that the entire synagogue site could be used for housing, it is also possible that the site could become an historic park with synagogue ruins and historical information, and the air rights could still be sold. I'll be writing examples of such arrangements in future posts.

While the application for demolition was withdrawn in 2013, there appears to have been little effort to protect and preserve the building. There is no public evidence of fund raising or restoration work done since the sale to Beth HaMidrash Restoration Inc. While saving the building would have been a massive undertaking, the success of other preservation projects suggests this could have been possible if it had been the real intent. In the past, substantial preservation funds granted by outside agencies went unused. Two weeks ago the congregation submitted a request for demolition of the ruins.

New York. NY. Ruins of Beth HaMidrash HaGadol after May 14, 2017 fire. Photo: Samuel D. Gruber 2017
Now the Lower East Side community, city safety experts, the NY Landmarks Preservation Board, and profit-scenting developers are debating the ruins' fate. Some say tear them down immediately and develop the property for profit; others say go slow and see about developing a project that conserves some remnant of the structure and serves the community. 

Councilwoman Margaret Chin, who has often been a mediating figure between local developers and neighborhood preservation groups, expressed concern over demolition plans. In a statement she said "When this devastating fire occurred, I held out hope that this vital piece of the Lower East Side's history could  be preserved for future generations ... I still hope that a portion of this historic structure can be saved. I urge all of the parties involved to work together to explore every option to prevent the full demolition of this sacred building."

Unlike the ruin of the midtown Central Synagogue when it was burned nearly 20 years ago, Beth HaMidrash does not have a waiting congregation or an insurance settlement to help rebuild. In any case, Beth HaMidrash HaGadol is so destroyed that even rebuilding would not bring back its historic fabric - which was mostly the sanctuary interior. Even that interior had been compromised in recent years, Neglect and then closing of the building led to extensive damp and mold issues, and other conservation problems, which would have made the preservation of much of the woodwork difficult.

On June 20th, the local Community Board #3 Landmarks Committee took testimony about the future of the ruins. Their fate in the short term depends on what danger city inspectors believe the standing walls pose. The site is fenced off, and while a superficial look suggest they are mostly stable - including the solid brick apsed ark wall - it is hard to say whether this wall or the remains of the facade tower would withstand high winds and rain, or the vibrations of heavy equipment removing other rubble.  For sure, in Eastern Europe  I've seen walls much like these stand as ruins for generations. But even if the walls were deemed safe - at least now - the rest of the building debris needs to be cleared way. To do this with heavy equipment and salvage the walls is tricky and expensive business.  

At the CB# 3 meeting, Dr.  Elissa Sampson, a geographer and historian of the Lower East Side, longtime activist in LES religious and cultural affairs, and my Jewish Studies Program colleague at Cornell University, began her testimony summing up the situation: 

The loss of a building can tear a hole in people's hearts as well as in a Lower East Side street's fabric. One of the most famous landmarked synagogues in New York, Beth HaMidrash HaGadol, was destroyed by fire on May 14th. While most importantly there was no loss of life, there is a vital loss of place and we are now all dealing with the tragic aftermath. Among other things, the synagogue's existence was a critical marker of the rapid mass immigration of Eastern European Jews to the United States. I think that there is no disagreement here as to importance of appropriately dealing with whatever DOB’s determination is regarding the demolition of most of the building.
While we don't know fully what can reasonably be saved now, it is eminently clear that with some real effort the building could have been saved before the fire. Instead, each year we watched how bidding went higher even as the building continued to deteriorate further to the point of dereliction. As late as March, 2013, Robert Silman Engineering was brought in by LPC, funded by NY Landmarks Conservancy, and they determined that the exterior of the building could be saved. Equivalent exercises had taken place over the years. There is no shadenfreude here; what eventually happened seems to be a case of coming to the table far too late for the building’s sake.
It is hard to imagine anyone taking the effort to save these ruins when those responsible  neglected the building for so long, citing financial hardship as a primary reason.  This building could have been saved if the owners - a less-than-transparent  restoration coterie set up by the congregation - had really wanted to to save the structure.  It is not ironic - but rather a significant factor that led to the neglect - that the building site is worth a lot of money, and when the building is fully gone money will almost rain from heaven.  True, when the building stood significant income that could have gone to repairs and restoration was possible by selling air rights. But now that the building is destroyed - and if the ruins are demolished - then the lot can be sold and developed for much much more - perhaps a sum in the tens of millions of dollars. 

According to recent an article by Bill Weinberg in the Villager, (June 29, 1917) reporting on the CB# meeting:
At the meeting, Rabbi Greenbaum admitted that air rights above the landmarked building were worth an estimated $12 million before the fire, whereas the site without landmark protection could fetch $18 million. Numerous reports indicated that the synagogue’s owners had been in talks with the Gotham Organization — developers of the Gotham West luxury complex on 11th Ave. in Midtown.
When asked by this reporter if the Gotham Organization idea has now been officially dropped, Greenbaum’s consultant Thomas McMahon replied by e-mail: “Nothing official. The idea and conversation continues to find a way [sic] to develop the property in a way that makes sense. Gotham was one of the respondents to a RFP [request for proposals] issued by the CaPC [Chinese American Planning Council].”
New York. NY. Ruins of Beth HaMidrash HaGadol after May 14, 2017 fire. Photo: Samuel D. Gruber 2017
New York. NY. Ruins of Beth Hamidrash Hagadol after May 14, 2017 fire. Photo: Samuel D. Gruber 2017

New York. NY. Ruins of Beth HaMidrash HaGadol after May 14, 2017 fire. Photo: Samuel D. Gruber 2017
Such lure of money has often been attractive to other religious groups and it is understandable when the funds reaped from one site might be reinvested into another, and the congregation remains a going concern. But in the hot real estate marker of the Lower East Side small congregations - or often a few people who speak for the entire history of a congregation - are ready to cash out. The transactions will not be transparent, and there is no assurance that the use of the funds will serve the public good. Public oversight of ownership and sale of religious and charitable properties is often lax, and also subject to political pressures.

If the site is sold who will get this money? The small coterie that has controlled and neglected the site for years - probably waiting for this windfall? Since this has been a religious building off the tax rolls for its entire existence, it would be shame - a scandal really - to see proceeds from the destruction enrich a few. Traditionally in Jewish law proceeds from the sale of synagogue buildings go to the upkeep of cemeteries or to religious schools. By most American state law, the assets of a defunct congregation or other not-for-profit might go to the nearest similar organization (cy-pres doctrine). In this case, while the Beth HeMidrash HaGadol congregation is defunct, they have already transferred their assets - the value of the building site - to the not-for-profit 201 (C).  Since the purpose of the Beth HaMidrash Restoration Inc. was ostensibly the restoration of the building which is now not possible, could that organization now be considered defunct and it's assets transferred to other organizations, too? I'm sure many lawyers will be investigating this question (and billing for it).

Even if the building all comes down and most funds are directed to Jewish charitable and educational needs, it would be good if some large amount of future proceeds go into a fund - perhaps managed by the Landmarks Conservancy, the Lower East Side Conservancy or another preservation group, to assist the maintenance and restoration of other needed Lower East Side historic buildings, or even perhaps more specifically, local historic Jewish sites. We'll have to follow closely who will profit from this loss.

Taking the board through a documented history of preservation evaluations and surveys of the building and the lack of any real progress over the years, Dr. Sampson was quite explicit in her recommendation to CB#3:

As long as there is reason to suspect that the main results of development will be to the financial benefit of the individuals involved, and that the public benefit and use of the property is not clarified through legal paperwork or other means, I am recommending that no steps be taken toward development or demolition other than those required by DOB’s safety recommendations. We should not legitimate undermining the example of Rabbi Oshry, the revered Kovno rabbi who not only led its congregation after the War, but landmarked its building in 1967 to purposely prevent its demolition. If the proposal is indeed to put his name on what is in effect a new building, we need to be asking now what that new building will be, what community purpose will it serve, what will it look like, and what will surround it in terms of other new development. And we need to know in the public interest how the money trail works for what is ostensibly a publicly regulated charity
At the end of the hearing the Community Board 3 Landmarks Committee passed a resolution to protect as much as can be saved of the original structure after public safety is taken into account. They declared in part the approval of "the application for demolition, but urges the Landmarks Preservation Commission, Department of Buildings, the Chinese American Planning Council and the Synagogue to work together with the structural engineers to determine which elements of the Synagogue can be retained safely and that those elements be incorporated into any new building on the lot.”

Beth HaMidrash HaGadol had previously been a Baptist and then a Methodist Church, and after its conversion to synagogue use in 1895 architects Shneider & Herter were hired to strengthen and remodel the building. In the 20th century much of the added exterior ornament of the building was removed, probably for safety and to avoid the expense of maintaining it. A very thorough congregational and building history is provided on Wikipedia.

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