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December 11, 2010 / Katie

Architectural Portal to the Past

Adath Jeshurun Synagogue, 58-60 Rivington Street

Strange and beautiful, this synagogue was built in 1903 by Emery Roth, a prolific New York architect who’s work has left an indelible mark on the city’s skyline to this day. Some of his most famous buildings include the Ritz Hotel Tower and The Eldorado and The Beresford apartment buildings along Central Park West.

Roth’s story is analogous to most other “coming to America” immigrant tales; he left his native Hungary aboard a steamer headed for the U.S. at the age of 13, landed in Chicago where he shined shoes and did other odd jobs to scrape together a living, fell into an apprenticeship under a German architect, and eventually moved to New York to work in Richard Morris Hunt‘s studio.

As a Hungarian Jew, Roth made his first mark as an architect within his own community. Many of his early commissions were for small projects on the Lower East Side servicing the Hungarian community there. Among these was the Adath Jeshurun Synagogue, which was originally built for a congregation of Jews from Iasi, Romania. The synagogue has seen several other lives since then and is now used as artist studio space.

The building stopped me in my tracks the first time I came across it on one of my many wanderings through the LES and Chinatown. I was stunned by its bizarre facade. Had I discovered a portal to another universe?

Mysterious. Old-world. Forgotten. Enchanted.

Joyce Mendelsohn, author of The Lower East Side Remembered and Revisited, identifies the source of my intrigue in her exposition of this architectural wonder:

The synagogue is an early example of Emery Roth’s penchant for highly original, eclectic compositions–masterfully incorporating design elements from various historic sources into one building. Dominating the central section of the tan-brick facade is an immense Byzantine-inspired arch inscribed with the name of the congregation in Hebrew letters. It surmounts an oculus encircled by rosettes, framing a large Star of David. (With some pieces of the star lost over the years, it appears today as an abstract, geometric design.) Below the round window are carved tablets of the Ten Commandments within a rectangular panel.

Since that initial sighting, every time I have run into the building again has felt like something of a miracle–I always half-expect it to disappear, a figment of my imagination or of another realm altogether, and I marvel at the fact that it is still exactly where it is supposed to be.

Perhaps Roth would marvel too at his physical legacy, still sitting quietly on Rivington, a century after a procession of marching bands and horse-drawn carriages celebrated its entry into this world.

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