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Set back from the street and tucked away behind a fence on 11 East 11th Street in Greenwich Village lies a little synagogue that has recently sparked a discussion about constitutional issues. As reported by Gothamist, the Conservative Synagogue of Fifth Avenue recently submitted a proposal to renovate their 1921 landmarked building for religious purposes, causing a debate over whether or not the right to worship exempts certain buildings from New York City laws protecting historic landmarks. The vote held on Thursday, October 22nd by the Landmarks & Public Aesthetics Committee 1 concluded that it does not. 

Rendering-Conservative-Synagogue-Renovation-Greenwich-Village-UntappedCities-NYCRendering of the Conservative Synagogue renovation (Courtesy Jonathan Kammel)

The synagogue filed an application to renovate the historic building for several reasons. Their proposed 8 foot 10 inches addition to the front of the building would allow room for a “mizrach, an east-facing wall that would allow them to worship toward Israel, the proper orientation according to Talmudic Law,” writes Gothamist. Going beyond purely religious reasons, updating the building would bring the synagogue up to ADA standards. The proposed plan allows wheelchair access to every floor and fixes fire safety standards.

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The Landmarks Committee 1 was not moved. Bo Riccobono, a Committee member who voted against the application, stated that even if the synagogue tried to reconstruct the original façade, it would just end up looking like a “Disney Land” version. Similarly, the Committee stated that they have been very wary towards any altercation that involves a complete demolition of the façade, even if the proposed redesign was a mirror-image of the original. The building, despite its simple appearance, is protected under the Greenwich Village Historic District and is held to the same standard as its neighbors.

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The building has been home to the Conservative Synagogue of Fifth Avenue since 1961. Former president Edward Kerson told Gothamist, “we’ve used this building for 50 years, and we want to have confidence we’ll use it for another 50.” Kerson he’s prepared to fight, even if it means bringing up the First Amendment of the Constitution.

Next, check out the Museum of the City of New York’s exhibition on New York City landmarks and learn about the difference between a city, state and national landmark.