Broken remains of a Norfolk Street synagogue

NorfolkstreetsynagogueThe once-spectatular, now rundown building at 60 Norfolk Street started out in 1848 as the Norfolk Street Baptist Church.

It still has all the wonderful Gothic Revival touches of a mid-19th century church: arched windows, four-leaf tracery, and a high, vaulted nave inside.

Ten years later the church moved out, following its well-to-do members uptown as the neighborhood became an enclave of poorer immigrants.

Norfolkstreetsynagogue1900sA Methodist church took it over until 1885, when Orthodox Jewish congregation Beth Hamedrash Hagadol bought it for $45,000—and stayed for 122 years.

Founded by immigrants, Beth Hamedrash Hagadol was “the oldest Orthodox congregation of Russian Jews in the United States,” states nycjewishtours.org.

The congregation made some cosmetic changes so the place looked more like a synagogue.

“The new owners added a Jewish star to the roof and reconfigured the altar area to become a bima, but otherwise left the plain Gothic church intact,” says Inside the Apple.

In its day, thousands of Lower East Side residents worshipped here. But you know the story: the neighborhood changed, residents moved or died, and the congregation dwindled.

Bethhamedrashhagodolinside2005

Designated a city landmark in 1967, Beth Hamedrash Hagadol leaders closed the synagogue in 2007.

Since then, time and harsh weather have taken their toll. Windows are blown out, moldings have chipped, plaster falls, and overgrown brush block the entrance and give an eerie, abandoned feel.

Norfolkstreetsynagogue2

Last year, the congregation asked the landmarks commission for permission to tear down the synagogue and  sell the land to developers.

That request is on hold. In a city that loves its past, it’s surprising money can’t be found to turn around this historic bit of the Lower East Side.

[Second photo, about 1900: Wikipedia; Third photo, Wikipedia]

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5 Responses to “Broken remains of a Norfolk Street synagogue”

  1. Ellen Levitt Says:

    I wrote about “BHH” in my book The Lost Synagogues of Manhattan (Avotaynu) which was published this summer. The story is very unfortunate, and the tussle over BHH will likely be long and painful. I didn’t visit inside but wish I could have.

  2. Bruce R. Gilson Says:

    This phenomenon occurs elsewhere too. The first building that was purposely built as a synagogue in Washington, D. C. is now a Jewish museum — but I was able o get permition from the organization that owns it to have the site for my wedding in 1984, provided we did it during hours when the museum was closed to the public. But many former synagogues are now churches. The oddest is the Nineteenth Street Baptist Church — which, despite its name, is located on 16th St. in a former synagogue. They could not change their name when they moved into that building because there is a Sixteenth Street Baptist Church as well!

  3. ephemeralnewyork Says:

    It’s not uncommon to see a church in New York that started out as a shul or synagogue. Repurposing houses of worship is a good idea…better than tearing them down.

  4. Brian G. Says:

    Since when has this city loved it’s past? There isn’t a single “beloved” structure that hasn’t been threatened with the wrecking ball for the sake of the almighty dollar. Why not pave over the handful of historic cemeteries in NYC and convert them to much needed parking for commuters? (Note to city planners: The above sentence is an example of something called ‘sarcasm’. Please do not do this…)

  5. Crossing Delancey | travellingcari.com Says:

    […] With time to kill, I walked down Essex to Delancey and back up Norfolk for a better look. It turns out it was Beth Hamedrash Hagadol, formerly the Norfolk St. Baptist Church/Alanson Methodist Episcopal […]

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