Beth Hamedrash Hagodol and the Precarious State of Religious Landmarks

On Sunday, Beth Hamedrash Hagodol, the 167-year-old synagogue on Norfolk Street, caught fire. The building, without a congregation since 2007 and in severe disrepair, had become susceptible to both incidental or, as was apparently the case, deliberate damage. The tragic loss of a center of the Lower East Side’s once-vibrant religious life calls attention to the state of preservation purgatory facing many of the city’s ecclesiastical landmarks.

Callous and shortsighted demolitions are often cited as galvanizing events for New York’s preservation movement: the razing of the original Pennsylvania Station and its subsequent replacement with the reviled Madison Square Garden arena was a galling and high profile incident, while the loss of local landmarks like the Brooklyn Savings Bank in Brooklyn Heights helped turn public opinion against overzealous redevelopment.

High profile cases can advance a narrative of preservation as protection alone, obscuring the challenges facing decaying structures and the communities they serve. Landmark designation is only a small step towards long-term preservation, and for many religious buildings, the outlook is uncertain.

Beth Hamedrash Hagodol, 60 Norfolk Street, ca. 1979. Via MCNY.

Built in 1850 as the Norfolk Street Baptist Church, the Gothic Revival church was purchased by Congregation Beth Hamedrash Hagodol in 1885, becoming one of dozens of Lower East Side synagogues serving the neighborhood’s growing community of Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe.

By the mid-20th century, the families who had once regularly attended services had moved to other neighborhoods or out of the city altogether. Though the synagogue was designated a New York City Landmark in 1967 (it was among the first religious buildings to achieve designation, just two years after the passage of the Landmarks Law), the congregation struggled to cover the cost of necessary repairs. Landmark status saved the building from the wrecking ball, but provided no guarantee for its long-term structural viability.

Beth Hamedrash Hagodol was far from the only religious building facing this conundrum:

St. James Roman Catholic Church, 32 James Street, ca. 1975. Via MCNY.

On James Street, a few blocks downtown, the St. James Roman Catholic Church found itself in a similar situation in the mid-80s. Though the church won Landmark status in 1966, roof damage led to its closure in 1983. Three years later, the Ancient Order of Hibernians interceded to fund emergency repairs. In 2011, a two-alarm fire further damaged the attic and roof. Since then, restoration has progressed gradually.

In Brownsville, Brooklyn, Our Lady of Loreto is embroiled in a long-running and contentious dispute between groups pursuing Landmark protection for the church as-is, and advocates of an affordable housing redevelopment plan for the diocese-owned site.

The Eldridge Street Synagogue is a success story of the designation-preservation-restoration cycle. Like Beth Hamedrash Hagodol, declining attendance at Eldridge Street begat mid-century disrepair, causing the congregation to abandon the main sanctuary and conduct services in a basement room. In 1986, the non-profit Eldridge Street Project began what would ultimately become a 21-year $21 million restoration project, culminating in the opening of Museum at Eldridge Street. Sadly, this case is the outlier.

While funding sources like the Sacred Sites and Jewish Heritage Fund grants are available to landmarked religious buildings, ambitious restorations easily run into the millions — making adaptive reuse projects including residential and mixed-use conversions attractive options to owners. Indeed, Beth Hamedrash Hagodol was in the early stages of a partnership with the Chinese-American Planning Council and Gotham, a development firm, at the time of the fire.

The Beth Hamedrash Hagodol fire is a potent reminder of the many endangered historic buildings throughout the city — and a call to action. Stop and take notice: to save vulnerable buildings, awareness is a prerequisite to action.

Original image via MCNY, recreation via Urban Archive.

Urban Archive is a location-based mobile platform that brings together the digital collections of New York City’s historical institutions in an easy-to-use resource built for discovery, empowering New Yorkers to learn about history where it happened. Get the iOS app here.