Manhattan was a very different place in 1857 when a large and beautiful church, arched and Romanesque, opened on 89 Rivington St. James Buchanan was president, tenements were the latest thing in real estate, the “gangs of New York” were prowling the nearby Five Points, and the Lower East Side was already a Dickensian stew about to morph into the Jewish Plymouth Rock.
In 1902, the good burghers of the church sold the property to a shul, the First Roumanian-American Congregation, and the hardscrabble immigrants suddenly had their largest room, a centerpiece of majesty, a 1,700-seater with stained glass, sweeping balconies and spectacular acoustics that led to its being known as “the cantor’s Carnegie Hall,” back when operatic cantors were considered the height of elegance, a source of pride to a working class that looked forward to their Day of Rest in a building such as this.
A wrecker’s ball started taking it all down on Monday, on orders from the city’s Department of Buildings. The shul’s roof had collapsed on its own, back on Jan. 23. It was a safety hazard. But to paraphrase Gertrude Stein, before the shul was demolished the shul was demolished. The crowds had moved on.
It had been years since boys ran through the halls; years since pretty girls stood outside on Rivington Street, leaning against cars while waiting out a sermon. The carpets were mildewed, the rooms were askew, the dwindling minyan met in a basement hall where buckets filled with rain, rain that leaked all the way down the 70-by-100 foot structure, even when there was a roof.
Preservationists protested, but the shul never wanted landmark status. The shul didn’t want the outside interference, the black-hatted Rabbi Shmuel Spiegel told The Jewish Week several weeks ago. (Calls to him this week went unreturned.) It also didn’t want the several hundred thousand dollars in landmarking grants that went to other Lower East shuls, money that could have kept the shul in repair, said Joel Kaplan of the Lower East Side Conservancy.
But, Kaplan added sadly, “the land is worth a lot of money to developers, and they’ll build here,” not a shul but perhaps a 12-story moneymaker with a small room for what remains of the congregation.
Meanwhile, the shul is davening in a living room.
Jacob Goldman, president of the nearby Bialystoker Shul, said, “This was an absolute shame. It was a landmark, even if it wasn’t. Maybe we’ll look at all our old shuls and make sure we don’t lose another.”