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Lower East Side’s historic Beth Hamedrash Hagodol Synagogue destroyed by fire

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The landmarked building, unoccupied for a decade, is in ruins after a three-alarm fire

Beth Hamedrash Hagodol Synagogue on Norfolk Street the morning after a three-alarm fire.
Photo via the Lo-Down

Update, 5/16/17: Per DNAInfo, Sunday’s fire that destroyed Beth Hamedrash Hagodol Synagogue on Norfolk Street is now a suspected arson. According to the NYPD’s chief of detectives, Robert Boyce, it’s now being treated as a “purposeful fire.” Three teenagers were seen running from the scene on Sunday, and that the police “look forward to making an arrest in that case.”

According to DNAInfo, the FDNY says the case remains under investigation.

Sad news: last night, a three-alarm fire tore through the crumbling, historic Beth Hamedrash Hagodol Synagogue, with dozens of firefighters battling the blaze into the evening. As of this morning, the fire is out, but the structure itself appears to be in ruins, per photos from the Lo-Down.

The fire broke out around 7 p.m., and took about two hours to get under control, according to the New York Times. But in that time, the roof of the building and its interior were completely decimated, and much of its facade was damaged. Smoke from the blaze could be seen as far away as Brooklyn, with many folks on Instagram and Twitter capturing the damage in real time.

No cause of the fire has yet been reported, though the NYPD is still investigating; no injuries were reported either. [UPDATE: The New York Post says that a witness reported seeing three people running from the synagogue just before it erupted in flames. FDNY commander Roger Sakowich noted that the agency will be investigating how a fire broke out in the unused structure.] According to the Lo-Down, the Department of Buildings and the Landmarks Preservation Commission are on the scene to assess the damage to the landmarked structure.

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The synagogue itself dates back to the 1850s, when it was first erected as a Baptist church. In the 1880s, the building was purchased by Beth Hamedrash Hagadol, which occupied the space until it closed in 2007.

It became one of New York City’s earliest landmarks in 1967, with the Landmarks Preservation Commission noting at the time that “Beth Hamedrash Hagadol Synagogue has a special character, special historical and aesthetic interest, and value as part of the development, heritage and cultural characteristics of New York City.”

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That designation was something of a thorn in the synagogue’s side: After the building closed in 2007, it fell into disrepair; efforts to restore and preserve the structure, including finding a developer to renovate it, failed, thanks in part to the cost (an estimated $4.5 million).

At one point, Beth Hamedrash Hagadol even considered tearing the building down and selling the land, but outcry from preservationists led the synagogue’s leadership to change its tune.

But Rabbi Mendl Greenbaum of Beth Hamedrash Hagadol told the Lo-Down that he was due to meet with the LPC soon about restoration plans for the building. Now, with the building in ruins, those plans are up in the air.

The Lo-Down has been following the story since last night, and has plenty of photos this way.

Beth Hamedrash Hagadol Synagogue

60 Norfolk Street, New York, NY