The Lo-Down spotted careful demolition work beginning at the Beth Hamedrash Hagadol Synagogue on the Lower East Side. This summer, the 167-year-old landmark was set on fire, allegedly by teenage boys who had snuck inside the building. The three-alarm fire left the house of worship, which had sat empty for a decade, all but gutted.
The Gothic Revival building dates back to the 1850s, when it was first erected as a Baptist church. In the 1880s, it was purchased by Beth Hamedrash Hagadol, which occupied the space until it closed in 2007. The structure became one of New York City’s earliest landmarks when it was designated in 1967.
One month after the fire, it looked like much of the structure was beyond repair. The Landmarks Preservation Commission then approved the owner’s plan for a careful demolition of unstable parts of the synagogue, with the commission urging engineers to proceed cautiously in the hopes of saving part of the historic site.
According to a statement provided to the Lo-Down, "the LPC and DOB approvals provide for slowly removing the walls of the building until they reach a stable level." An engineer hired by the LPC is monitoring the work.
The building has had a difficult time since the synagogue closed in 2007. It had fallen into disrepair and efforts to restore and preserve the structure, including finding a developer to renovate it, failed. (The cost to do so was an estimated $4.5 million.) At one point, Beth Hamedrash Hagadol considered tearing the building down and selling the land, but outcry from preservationists led the synagogue’s leadership to change its tune.
The latest plan is a partnership with the Chinese American Planning Council, which wants to expand the exiting Hong Ning senior residence at 50 Norfolk Street onto the synagogue site and a nearby parking lot. To do so, the synagogue owners would sell their air rights, and could net as much as $12 million.
The proposed housing development would include a significant affordable component, and a community center for the Jewish and Chinese communities on the sites surrounding the synagogue. Most of the historic existing structure would come down, and what can be preserved would be incorporated into the proposed development as a memorial or new synagogue building.