This modest Forsyth Street walkup was once a synagogue

Forsyth Street between Grand and Hester Streets is a pretty typical Lower East Side block, with an uneven row of shabby but serviceable tenement walkups lining the east side of the street along Sara Roosevelt Park.

But one of those walkups, number 80, has some curious architectural touches. The third floor of the three-story building features Gothic arched and circular windows; you can almost imagine them filled with stained glass. And iron stars of David decorate each fire escape landing.

There’s good reason for these design flourishes. Though 80 Forsyth was built in 1874, according to 2013 post in The Lo-Down, what was once a house or tenement was converted into a synagogue in the late 19th century.

Turning a residential or commercial space into a synagogue may not have been unusual at the time. (Just as it’s not so unusual now, with storefront churches.) In the 1880s and 1890s, the Lower East Side was filling up with thousands of Jewish immigrants, who formed or joined congregations and needed places to worship.

Several congregations used the synagogue over the years. In the 1880s, a congregation identified by The New York Times as Kol Israel Anschi Poland occupied the space. The Times wrote that the congregation was fighting a tax bill from the city because the property was used for religious purposes, the congregation asserted.

But the city won the case, convincing the judge that since the ritual baths in the basement were open to “all Hebrews,” not just congregants, the building was liable to taxation.

I’m not sure when the last congregation abandoned the building. But this 1939-1941 tax photo of 80 Forsyth (above) appears to have a commercial tenant on the ground floor. (There’s the stained glass; if only the photo was in color!)

In the 1960s, the house turned synagogue took on an entirely new life: It became the studio of Abstract Expressionist painter Pat Passlof, per The Lo-Down.

Passlof bought the building in 1963 for $20,000 with her husband, painter Milton Resnick, and help from her parents, who pronounced it a “rat hole,” according to a 2011 New York Times piece.

“They called it a rat hole, but I couldn’t deny that,” Passlof said in the Times article. She was 83 and died later that year.

In 2014, the ex-synagogue went on the market for $6,250,000. Number 80 Forsyth has returned to its original purpose as a residence, it seems.

[Third image: NYC Department of Records and Information Services]

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6 Responses to “This modest Forsyth Street walkup was once a synagogue”

  1. mniy Says:

    Good Morning Esther,

    As always, today’s 4 articles were very informative and interesting. Thank you for the hard work which goes into each story. Have a happy and healthy Rosh Hashanah to your Family and to you.

    Sincerely.

    Dana Konikoff and Family.

  2. Greg Says:

    Thanks for this. I hadn’t seen that lovely Times profile before. She inadvertently bought the same building her grandmother undoubtedly worshipped in decades before. Among other interesting tidbits.

    After several years in Greenpoint I discovered I lived around the corner from the building where my family first settled in 1865. I used to attend community meetings in a church basement in Williamsburg without knowing until years later that my great-grandparents had been married in the church more than a hundred years before. Fun stuff, I feel.

  3. Greg Says:

    Also that 1962 price was $178,433.33 in today’s money, so the building (while of course very cheap by today’s NYC prices) was not exactly cheap in an absolute sense.

    • ephemeralnewyork Says:

      Not cheap perhaps, but still a bargain from the vantage point of today’s ridiculous Manhattan real estate market. And living around the corner from your descendants in the 1860s…that is amazing.

  4. Elizabeth Gwinnet Says:

    My third great grandparents lived at 77 Forsythe in the mid 1800s. Years ago I went by to see if it was still there but unfortunately that side of the street had been taken down. It isn’t in the tax photos. He died in1867 but she was still living there in 1880. She and her children must have watched this building being built. They had immigrated from Bavaria in late 1848 and were married at United German Evangelical Lutheran Church (later St. Paul’s) NYC in early 1849. He was a cabinet maker and she was a tailoress. Thank you!

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