Eldridge Street Synagogue Facade

In Architecture, Historic Preservation, Jewish Life on January 13, 2010 at 6:09 pm


On November 14th, 1886, the congregation Kahal Adas Yeshurun gathered to lay the cornerstone of the Eldridge Street Synagogue, the first great house of worship built by Eastern European Jews in America. The building was designed by Roman Catholic tenement builders, Peter and Francis Herter. The expense of the land and construction, cost $91,907.61 and took one year to build.

Notice the elaborate Star of David patterns set in terra-cotta bands, carved on the wooden doors, and raised atop the roof-line finials. Proudly displaying the building’s Jewish identity to all passer-bys, the synagogue’s architecture expressed the hope that the immigrants’ religion and culture would flourish on American soil.

Finial, Eldridge Street Synagogue. Museum at Eldrdige Street.

Rose Window, Eldridge Street Synagogue. Museum at Eldridge Street.

Terracotta, Eldridge Street Synagogue. Museum at Eldridge Street.

According to Jewish law, a synagogue’s sanctuary should be oriented in the direction of Jerusalem. This is the only Jewish law pertaining to synagogue architecture and as a result, Jewish synagogues around the world reflect an extraordinary architectural and cultural diversity. The Moorish style, to which Eldridge Street belongs, became popular in the 19th century. This style  distinguished synagogues from churches and hearkened to the Golden Period of Spain, when Jews, Christians and Muslims lived together peacefully. In addition to its Moorish arches, finials, and patterns, the Eldridge Street Synagogue also contains elements of  other architectural styles.  On the facade, notice the Gothic rose window and  the Romanesque masonry.

Though we have no proof, it is interesting to speculate that the congregants and the architects might have designed the building with Jewish numerical symbolism in mind:

  • 12 stars lining the circumference of the Rose Window →12 tribes of Israel
  • 10 tablets on the rooftop →10 Commandments
  • 5 keyhole windows below the Rose Window →  5 books of Moses: Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy
  • 3 bays/ staircases in the building → 3 Patriarchs: Abraham, Isaac, Jacob.
  • 4 doors in the building → 4 Matriarchs:  Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel and Leah.

Discussion Questions

  • What can you learn about the building from exploring its facade?
  • What about this design might have appealed to its immigrant founders?
  • Where else have you seen similar design elements, like stained glass and finials? What comparisons between the sites mentioned and Eldridge Street can be drawn?

Classroom Extensions

  • Have students take on the role of an architecture firm hired to design a place of worship. Students can work individually or in groups to create their design and should consider how the materials, colors, symbols and composition will appeal and relate to the congregants who will worship there.

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