By Maria Rocha-Buschel
Although Town & Village Synagogue on East 14th Street is currently being considered for landmarking by the city’s Landmarks Preservation Commission, the community most affected by the effort isn’t particularly enthusiastic about the prospect.
“We really don’t want the landmarking,” Synagogue President Marianna Mott Newirth said. “I’ll honor what their decision is but I don’t think the building merits landmarking. We take a position in preserving the community and we’ll have to go through all these hoops because of what they see from the street.”
Town & Village’s building has been on East 14th Street for 150 years, but the synagogue itself began elsewhere, so the physical manifestation for the congregation is not the most important aspect of the community for many of its members.
One such member, Peter Cooper Village resident Henry Condell, wrote a letter to the Landmarks Preservation Commission, published in the May 8 issue of Town & Village, that urged the commission not to landmark the synagogue because many members believe that the continuation of their traditions are more important than the building where the traditions are practiced.
“Even without the threat of landmarking, making our building safe, accessible and adaptable to our needs has proved to be beyond our means,” Condell argued. “Moreover, the space, laid out almost 150 years ago, poses tremendous safety risks to our congregation. Despite our best efforts and consultations with several professionals, we have been unable to come up with a practical and affordable solution to making this antiquated building safe.”
Newirth noted that the landmarking effort has been going on for almost 40 years and even just being under consideration has affected the synagogue’s ability to make the necessary repairs on their building. “Even just being calendared, if there’s anything that affects the façade we need to go through the LPC,” Newirth said. “There’s work on the roof that can’t be done because we’re being considered for landmarking. Those onion domes, which are one of the main reasons for the landmarking, are exceedingly leaky and of course that’s what everyone sees. But that’s one of the parts that needs to be fixed yesterday. And even now, our hands our tied. That’s a prime example of how being landmarked would cause delays.”
As a compromise, both Newirth and Condell have said that if landmarking does go through, they want to make a distinction between the front part of the building, which includes the historic façade and the main sanctuary, and the back part of the building, which encompasses the kitchen and office spaces that get used for various programs not necessarily related to their religious services. Per this distinction, they are hoping that only the front part of the building be considered for landmarking.
Assemblymember Brian Kavanagh submitted testimony in favor of the landmarking but also made the distinction between the two parts of the building, based on feedback from constituents who are members of the synagogue, and specified that only the front part of the building should be landmarked. He noted in his testimony that “the building in the back of the lot was not part of the original plan and serves various, newer purposes” and is not architecturally significant.
“We serve our membership but we also serve our greater community, people who are not Jewish,” Newirth said. “The people who were most vocal about landmarking our building have never stepped through our doors and never even knew there was a back building. I can completely understand (the architectural significance of the façade) and we’re not interested in ruining that but we are interested in enhancing what we have so our members can get the most out of our services.”
The LPC hosted a public hearing at the end of March about the proposed landmarking and kicked off a month of public feedback throughout April, but Newirth said that she isn’t sure how long they’ll be waiting for a response. She said that it might even be possible that they’ll have to go through the whole process again because, since the city’s administration has recently changed, a new chair of the commission was just appointed last week.