It’s not a good day for preservation in New York City today. Not only is Harlem’s Lenox Lounge nearly fully demolished as of this morning, a fire has destroyed the historic Beth Hamedrash Hagadol Synagogue, a city landmark on the Lower East Side at 60–64 Norfolk Street. Though no injuries have been reported, there is very little left of the synagogue which was already sitting in an abandoned state for several years. The religious building was constructed in 1850 as a Baptist church, and converted into an Orthodox Jewish synagogue in 1885.
As the Museum of Eldridge Street, also located in the Lower East Side, noted in a Facebook post, it shares a history with Beth Hamedrash Hagadol as both synagogues “grew out of the first Russian congregation in the United States. Beth Hamedrash HaGadol was once home to a vital community and featured prominent rabbis like Jacob Joseph, the first and only Chief Rabbi of New York City. In recent years, though, the synagogue’s doors were closed and it was considered too dangerous to enter.”
Untapped Cities writer and author Laurie Gwen Shapiro also tells us that “in doing research a while back, I had written down that the powerful and feared gossip columnist Walter Winchell’s Minsk-born grandfather Chaim Weinschel was a cantor there. There was a yellowed clipping of an article that I read about a year ago at the Seward Park Branch Library that mentioned this and I’d been meaning to write about Winchell’s unusual connection to the Lower East Side. A lot of people are suspecting arson as this is a prime condo spot.” The Lo Down has reported that kids have been trespassing into the synagogue for weeks and a fire was put out as recently as last week, and security footage is being used as part of the investigation into this fire.
As the 1967 designation report from the New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission noted:
This great Synagogue has long been considered a landmark by the Greater New York Board of Rabbis, by the Union of Orthodox Congregations of the United States representing three thousand congregations and by the citizens of the community. The Synagogue is noted especially for the services it has rendered to the many orthodox Jews from eastern European countries who migrated to the United states during the late Nineteenth and early Twentieth Centuries.
The report found its architecture “striking in profile,” and a notable example of “modified Gothic Revival architecture.” It called the main, double entrance door and the tall window above it the building’s “dominant feature,” elements that have been clearly lost in this fire.
Though the area is cordoned off by FDNY and police at the moment, aerial photographs show that the roof is gone, apart from some structural beams that won’t stand for long. The interior is completely destroyed although parts of the front and rear facade are still standing, including the square towers in the front
Next, check out the Top 10 Secrets of the Eldridge Street Synagogue.