The structure that architectural historian Francis Morrone calls “one of the most important buildings in the East Village” is on the market for $14 million. It’s also set to be considered for city landmark designation this spring.
On the first day of October, East Villagers awoke to the news that Tifereth Israel, the Town & Village Synagogue at 334 E. 14th Street, was for sale. After we got over our shock, and concern for the health of the congregation (it turns out to be doing fine), GVSHP and six other groups urged the Landmarks Preservation Commission to review a case that’s been “calendared” since 1966. Nobody knew why nearly half a century went by without a hearing, but an apt moment seemed to have arrived.
Just a few days before the hearing was to take place on Oct. 29, it was indefinitely postponed. Checking in with the LPC recently, we were told that “the hearing on the proposed designation of the Town & Village Synagogue has been laid over at the request of the synagogue board to allow them additional time to prepare their testimony. The public hearing will be rescheduled for this spring.”
The history of this interesting building deserves to be heard. Designed in 1866 by Julius Boekell, creator of a wide variety of significant buildings around the city, it serves as both a Lower East Side time capsule, and an enriching presence on a motley block of 14th Street.
As Morrone tells us:
It’s a textbook on ethnic succession, originating as a German Baptist church in Kleindeutschland days. It then became, in 1926, a Ukrainian Autocephalic Orthodox church, at a time when Ukrainians had become a major group in the area. Finally, in 1962, a Conservative congregation that had previously worshipped in the old Labor Temple took it over. By then the cross that originally surmounted the apex of the central gable had been removed by the Ukrainians in favor of the squat plinth with onion dome. The Romanesque architecture, by Julius Boekell, is of that same jaunty variety as, and of a similar quality to, the designated landmark Flushing Town Hall in Queens. The gabling, corbeling, and arcading form the sorts of pleasing rhythms that bring a smile to the face of any harried passerby, in a neighborhood where too little else like that exists.
Hand-me-down buildings between different faiths are a distinctive feature of this area, points out Laurie Tobias Cohen, executive director of the Lower East Side Jewish Conservancy.
The Lower East Side/East Village stands out as a neighborhood where communities of faith routinely exchanged buildings — the Willett Street Methodist Episcopal Church becoming the Bialystoker Synagogue in 1905, the First Roumanian American Congregation changing hands between the Christian and Jewish communities on two occasions. In 1940 the congregation of the Community Synagogue on E. 6th Street purchased the St. Mark’s Evangelical Lutheran Church, built in 1904 with the tithed labor of its founders. It was this community that lost much of its congregation to the General Slocum Steam Ship Fire. Descendants of the survivors are in touch with the Jewish congregation in their original home, til this day. Indications are that these kinds of transactions do not occur in other Western societies, and are a reflection of the American traditions of tolerance and pragmatism.
Buildings often present challenges for religious congregations of every stripe. Obtaining a physical home, maintaining it, and then either continuing to either fill it, or fit into it, are challenges faced by practically every house of worship. We at GVSHP are sympathetic to that — and so are landmarks authorities. That’s why we’ve reached out to Tifereth Israel to serve as a resource as the congregation evaluates its plans. Should the building be landmarked, and continue to serve as a synagogue, a variety of city and state programs exist to facilitate that dual role.