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Lower East Side’s fire-ravaged Beth Hamedrash Hagadol will be partially demolished with Landmarks approval

The Commission will likely hire someone to monitor the demolition to preserve the integrity of the site

An aerial view of the destroyed synagogue.
Via Howard Zimmerman Architects/Landmarks Preservation Commission.

The city’s Landmarks Preservation Commission closely debated the fate of the Lower East Side’s Beth Hamedrash Hagodol Synagogue, most of which burnt down in a fire in May (allegedly arson), at a meeting on Tuesday.

The owners of the synagogue site are working with the local nonprofit group, the Chinatown Planning Council (the owners of the two sites adjacent to the synagogue) to redevelop the site, potentially by bringing a developer on board. They were seeking permissions from the Landmarks Commission to demolish most of the existing structure, and incorporate parts of the remaining structure into either a memorial or a new synagogue building.

The plans are all preliminary in nature, and just days after the fire destroyed the property, the owners were originally scheduled to meet with staff members of the LPC to hammer out a plan to redevelop the deteriorating synagogue.

The city’s Department of Buildings hasn’t yet issued a demolition notice on the property because they are working with the owners and the LPC on the next best steps. The immediate concern detailed by structural engineers representing both the owners of the property and the LPC is that large portions of the building, and rubble on the site need to be demolished and removed respectively, to ensure the safety of the overall site.

The LPC had two issues before them on Tuesday concerning Beth Hamedrash: approving a partial or full demolition of site, and debating whether the site still merited a landmarks designation if most of the building had been destroyed.

For the most part, the Commission agreed with the assessment of the engineers: portions of the building had to be removed to secure the site. For the matter concerning the landmark status, the Commission decided to postpone that discussion until engineers could assess the site post-demolition.

Because of the robust discussion and variety of opinions—at one point the commissioners debated on the definitions of disassembling the site versus demolishing it—a formal decision on this application was postponed until later in the day.

And while most commissioners were in agreement, a notable voice of dissent was Michael Devonshire. He wasn’t convinced that demolition was necessary and hoped that the owners would think about stabilizing the existing structure, and rebuilding instead of demolishing the 132-year-old synagogue.

Several preservation groups echoed these sentiments in the public testimony section of the meeting including the Historic Districts Council and the Society for the Architecture of the City. Both groups argued that the owners of the synagogue should have filed a hardship application with the city when they knew they were struggling instead of proposing to demolish the site.

Mark Silberman, the general counsel for the Commission argued that the owners had in fact filed a hardship application, but after working with the LPC and the DOB, it was decided that a demolition application was the way to go.

What the Commission did agree on was to have a Commission-approved engineer or monitor look over the entire demolition process of the synagogue to ensure that the structure isn’t destroyed completely, and to ensure that Commission can still discuss the integrity of this New York City landmark sometime in the future.

Commissioner Michael Goldblum went a step further to suggest that parts of the rubble be labeled and preserved for potential future use in a new building or a memorial. Earlier, Manhattan’s Community Board 3 had also approved a partial demolition of the site.

UPDATE: The Commission has now put out its resolution about Beth Hamedrash. Here are the salient details:

  1. That the building suffered a serious fire that significantly damaged the building;
  2. That portions of the building, especially on the west, north and south facades are structurally unsound and unsafe and need to be removed and other portions need to be assessed for the feasibility of retaining them
  3. That the work will be done carefully to minimize the amount of material that must be removed and shall continue only to a point where it is feasible to stabilize the facades
  4. That significant architectural features and finished material will be salvaged where feasible
  5. And that the removal will be closely monitored on site by the Commission’s engineer.