In 2007, the Museum at Eldridget Street on New York’s Lower East Side completed a 20-year, $20 million restoration of the Eldridge Street Synagogue. The history of the landmarked site began more than a century before. Opened in 1887, the Eldridge Street Synagogue was one of the first erected in the United States by Eastern European Jews. In 1987, local residents and urban preservationists joined forces to save the stunning architectural marvel from the verge of collapse. In 2022, the synagogue is celebrated its 135th anniversary. Below are 13 of our favorite secrets about this stunning historical space.
1. The Main Sanctuary of the Eldridge Street Synagogue Was Abandoned
Many visitors find this fact shocking today, but for decades, the main sanctuary of the Eldridge Street Synagogue sat in a state of abandonment. NYU professor Gerard Wolfe rediscovered the sanctuary in the 1970s as he was writing his book, The Synagogues of the Lower East Side. Eldridge Street was one of the spaces he desperately wanted to visit and when he finally got access, this is the scene he saw, “I found the doors of the sanctuary warped shut. I pulled them open and stepped inside, and my hair stood on end. It was like the Twilight Zone, like going into the past.”
Upon the sanctuary’s discovery, the dust inside was so thick one could write in it, and cobwebs hung between the pillars. There was extensive water damage to the dome, with water pouring in from the openings. Pigeons had taken root on the balcony. Empty windows sat where stained glass once let in light, and fragments of walls were missing. As the Museum at Eldridge Street describes in their interactive exhibition, “Prayer books and prayer shawls were scattered on benches, as if waiting for services to resume.”