Beyond the Village and Back: Assyrian Revival on West 30th Street
In 2001, the Landmarks Preservation Commission designated 130 West 30th Street as a Landmark. Designed by the preeminent architect Cass Gilbert in 1927-28, the building was built to accommodate offices, showrooms and manufacturing space for the fur industry. If you’re walking down 30th Street, there are still some furriers left, but not at this building. As you walk by, take time to notice “the bold, abstracted terra-cotta designs… based on traditional Assyrian hunting scenes and mythical guardian figures… truly unusual motifs” as per the LPC’s designation report. Its connection to the Village? Read on to learn more, but it involves a very special tenant, rare as Assyrian hunting scenes on 30th Street, and one which is particularly relevant this time of year.
Cass Gilbert and his building on 30th Street
Cass Gilbert (1859-1934) designed countless buildings around the country, from skyscrapers to museums to government buildings, including the United States Supreme Court, the Woolworth Building, and the United States Customs House. 130 West 30th Street was designed as a speculative building for a real estate firm working in the newly-developing fur district of New York City. To anoint this new industry with Assyrian Revival style was no coincidence. This is just one of many historically-inspired buildings, reflecting the American assertion that it was continuing the legacies of Greek democracy, Roman law, and Renaissance humanism.
The building’s facade is composed of brick, with large, metal-framed, industrial windows, and terra-cotta at the spandrel panels, window sills, and cornices, as well as in panels over the two main entrances. The building is 18 stories high, rising with half-bay setbacks on the tenth, eleventh, fourteenth, fifteenth, and seventeenth floors. Each is capped by terra-cotta cornice around all four facades.
Created by the Atlantic Terra Cotta Company, these terracotta bands and elaborate geometrically-ornamented spandrel panels are unusual and quite lovely. The LPC Designation report states:
Each terra-cotta panel is covered by an intricate design consisting of a central circle holding a spread-winged bird surrounded by a grid with flowers in each section and geometric patterns framing the rectangle. The panels echo the larger grid of the whole front facade. The overall effect is almost one of a large woven textile, an idea especially appropriate to a building in the garment district. A second use of terra cotta on this building consists of the two mirror-image hunting scene panels which are set into the marble above each of the two entrances. Based on the famous stone reliefs taken from the palace of Assyrian King Assurnasirpal II of c. 883-859 which show the king hunting lions from his chariot, this modern adaptation has two helmeted men, one with a bow and arrow aimed toward a fleeing antelope.
Then, some special Villagers…
So, it’s connection to the Village? That’s easy – the newest tenant of 130 W 30th Street’s ground floor space (as well as lower level and second-floor office spaces) is none other than Congregation Beit Simchat Torah (CBST), New York’s LGBTQ synagogue.
CBST, as it is abbreviated, began when some Villagers got together in 1973, and created CBST as a religious home where folks could be deeply Jewish and proudly gay. In 1976, CBST moved to a loft in the Westbeth Complex on Bethune Street in the Far West Village, overlooking that building’s iconic courtyard. It would remain there for the next 40 years, playing an active role in the growth, challenges, heartbreaks, and delights of LGBT life in the Village. From the AIDS Crisis to the first meeting of the community’s Hebrew School for children, the synagogue has grown, met the needs of its community, and even today continues to provide some of the only free progressive High Holy Day services in New York, hosted every year at the Jacob Javits Center.
When I first walked into the street level space of 130 W 30th Street in 2013, when the synagogue’s renovation began, I was amazed by the huge vault in the back of the space. Precious furs and other merchandise were once stored there. Now, that vault is a vastly different kind of treasured space — the main sanctuary for this vibrant, Village-born community.
CBST at 130 West 30th
In 2016, just as winter was turning into spring, CBST completed its renovation. The community left its little home in Westbeth and moved to this unique Cass Gilbert building. The New York Times hailed the interior renovation, designed by Architecture Research Office, as “mindful” and “mystical.” It also called attention, too, to the large, gender-neutral restroom on the lower level. This restroom required a variance from the Buildings Department, which otherwise would have required installation of two separate bathrooms.
The ultramodern layout is dotted with historic Jewish artifacts and motifs, which echo the building’s facade in their historic depictions of lions and floral elements. Many of these details were donated to the synagogue by its members and their families and were carried from Westbeth as mementos of earlier times. The community proudly added 4 rainbow flags, made custom by the creator of the rainbow flag and longtime Villager Gilbert Baker, which are visible from the street. See more images here.
The Congregation keeps its Village roots apparent through always highlighting and continuing its commitment to LGBTQ activism, inclusion, and political involvement. High Holy Day services are still free and open to anyone who wants to take part in a truly welcoming, spiritual, progressive service. Learn more here, and check out their beautiful, Assyrian Revival, landmarked Cass Gilbert building!