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Norfolk Building Transformation: Synagogue to Art Foundation

How do buildings reflect changing times? What saves an abandoned building from demolition in a rapidly-gentrifying city? Was it sacrilege or a saving grace to turn the oldest standing synagogue in New York City into an exclusive event space?

The building at 172 Norfolk Street was built in 1849, commissioned by Jewish organization Anshe Chesed (“People of Kindness”). The congregation hired Alexander Saeltzer to design it (Saelter also designed the Public Theater and the Academy of Music on Astor Place) and aesthetic was the priority as they designed their synagogue. 

Many members of the congregation were immigrants, or children of immigrants. Anshe Chesed Synagogue, or “Norfolk Street Congregation,” was the first German-Jewish synagogue in New York, and soon Polish and Dutch Jews joined the community. Congregation members were coming from countries where synagogues had to be hidden and inconspicuous. In New York, these people found relative freedom of religious expression, and there was no reason to hide their place of worship. So the Gothic-revival, ornamented styling of this building’s facade was a very intentional choice, 220 years ago. New Yorkers still appreciate it today, but for different reason, and it looks different than it did when it was built.

This was the third Jewish congregation in New York City, and the first to be led by a rabbi–it quickly rose to prominence and the community grew. But it seemed to decline as quickly as it stated. Anshe Chesed moved uptown as its congregation members did, about 30 years after opening its doors. The synagogue was taken over by another congregation, but by the 1920s, the area was no longer the “Jewish Lower East Side.” For context: there were more than 250,000 Jews in the LES in 1900. By 1975, there were fewer than 15,000.

So by the 1930s the Great Depression hit and the synagogue fell into disrepair. Thieves broke the stained-glass windows, robbed its interior, and soon, the congregation could not cover operating costs. By the mid-20th century, a once-prominent synagogue was an abandoned building.

The neighborhood became known for drug trade, violent crime, and dwellers in abandoned buildings and warehouses. Nobody showed interest in 172 Norfolk Street until Spanish artist Angel Orensanz came to New York in 1986 in pursuit of a workspace. His art–tall, colorful cylinders–required a space with high ceilings, and he was drawn to this building for several reasons. It reminded him of Europe, it looked unlike any other building in the neighborhood, and he wanted to preserve it by transforming it.

By 1992, Angel opened a foundation and turned his studio into an event space. The synagogue has hosted events for the past 30 years form a Maya Angelou poetry reading, to a Mariah Carey concert, to the wedding of Matthew Broderick and Sarah Jessica Parker.

This building’s transformation raises key questions about preserving spaces, and the act of transforming a building in order to save it. If you once worshipped at the Norfolk Street Congregation and later in your life, you saw it host celebrity weddings and arts events, how would you feel? What if the alternative was seeing the building demolished altogether?