After nearly half a century of waiting, a nearly 150-year-old Manhattan religious institution has been preserved. The Landmarks Preservation Commission voted Tuesday to designate the Tifereth Israel Town and Village Synagogue at 334 East 14th Street a city landmark. A year ago, the synagogue was put on the market as a development site for $14 million, but the listing has since disappeared. After the designation, synagogue representatives said that they will not be selling or moving.
The synagogue has a fascinating religious history, as it did not start as a synagogue. Constructed from 1866 to 1869 and designed by Julius Boekell in the German Rundgobenstil style, it started life as the First German Baptist Church. It was the architect's only church and was said to have emphasized the affirmation of German cultural identity. At that time, the spot was the northern boundary of an area known as Kleinduetschland.
The building's Rundbogenstil design incorporates such typical German Romanesque features as roughly coursed stone facings, large round-arch openings, arcuated corbel tables, bet and string courses, and a central gable pierced by an ocular window, the commission said.
In 1926, it was leased and then sold to the Ukrainian Autocephalic Church of St. Volodymyr. In 1939 and 1940, the structure was refurbished. In 1962, it was sold Congregation Tifereth Israel Town and Village Synagogue, which occupies it today.
Shortly after the 1965 law establishing the Landmarks Preservation Commission went into effect, a move to landmark the synagogue went before the commission and was calendared, but no vote was taken. The Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation (GVSHP) described it as having been in "landmarks limbo" since then. The item came up on March 25 of this year, but no vote was taken. Today's action involved its own bit of waiting. The presentation was made in the morning as the second item of the day, but there was no quorum, so the actual vote had to wait until after lunch.
The designation, at the request of the synagogue, does not include a building on the rear portion of the lot, which LPC chair Meenakshi Srinivasan described as having "no style." Commissioner Michael Devonshire said he wanted the structure preserved, but Srinivasan felt it wasn't important enough since you can't see it from outside the synagogue and can only see some of it from part of the inside of the synagogue. She also said that leaving it out of the designation would give the synagogue more freedom to use the space as they see fit for their mission.
As for the main building, Srinivasan cited its "particularly interesting history" when it comes to the development of the Lower East Side (though the synagogue's location on 14th Street between First and Second avenues is most definitely the East Village).
When the vote took place, it was unanimous, save for Commissioner Devonshire's official objection to not designating the entire complex a landmark.
"It's wonderful that after nearly half a century, this venerable piece of our city and our neighborhood's history will finally receive the recognition and protection it deserves and which we fought so hard for," GVSHP executive director Andrew Berman said. "With recent plans by the congregation putting the fate of this historic building in doubt, it's especially important that landmark designation was finally granted today." Berman was disappointed that the rear building was not included in the designation. "We are concerned that this could allow construction of a large, out-of-context structure in the back of that lot which could loom over the historic building."
In a statement on its website, the synagogue call the decision "a testament to our building's rich immigrant history in NYC." The statement also reiterated the sentiment that they will not be moving: "May we work together to strengthen this building so that it will be a beacon of spirituality, a center of Jewish learning and a jewel on 14th Street for the current and future generations of New Yorkers."
—Evan Bindelglass is a local freelance journalist, photographer, cinephile, and foodie. You can e-mail him, follow him on Twitter @evabin, or check out his personal blog.
· Town and Village Synagogue [Official]
· All Town and Village Synagogue coverage [Curbed]
· All Landmarks Preservation coverage [Curbed]