Civic Center Synagogue
New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission: December 8, 1992.
The Civic Center Synagogue was built in 1967 for Shaare Zedek, a Jewish Orthodox congregation established in 1938 as a weekday synagogue for civil servants and textile workers in downtown Manhattan. In 1957 the synagogue completed its first permanent home at 80 Duane Street. In the early sixties, the building was condemned to construct the United States Federal Building and Customs Courthouse. In 1965, the displaced congregation purchased and demolished a brownstone on White Street between Church Street and Franklin Place build new, modern synagogue.
The congregation commissioned architect William N. Breger to design a building that would respond to the restrictions of the site but also differ substantially from the previous structure. The architect was asked to consider the programmatic needs of a synagogue attended by congregants who did not live in the area and only stopped to worship in the mornings and evenings. Contrary to most neighborhood synagogues, the congregation did not require extensive space for classrooms or a social hall. This allowed the architect to concentrate stylistic expression in the sanctuary, which defines the synagogue interior. The building was a special project for Breger, who has remarked that it was the only building in which he was truly able to express himself as an architect.
Both the exterior and the interior are laden with symbolism. The bowing façade evokes the flame of the burning bush; the windowless sanctuary receives illumination from a skylight high above the bimah. Breger’s design endowed the building with qualities of mystery, fluidity, and light. Viewed from any direction, the building appears to float above the lot, suspended between two adjacent cast-iron structures.
The Civic Center Synagogue sits on a rectangular red brick base between two 19th-century cast-iron buildings on a combined lot 100 feet deep and 50 feet wide. The total building area is 12,300 square feet. The building is set back significantly from the street and recedes further as it rises to its final height. The lot is entered through a wrought iron security fence that preserves the street line. The sharply curving façade, which lacks any fenestration, is faced with white marble bricks. The shape of the structure is formed by three curving sheets of concrete of varying thickness. The front and the rear shells are connected by a framework of horizontal and diagonal steel beams topped with a sloping skylight of double-paned glass that rises 40 feet above the bimah. The roof shell is largely invisible inside and out.
The structure is revealed entirely in the sanctuary, which takes up the whole of the interior, with a hidden staircase behind the ark. The sanctuary was built to seat 300 congregants. It has four walls, clad in three different materials. The east and west walls are buff brick. The rear sloping wall which forms the backdrop to the bimah is lined with horizontal birch slats. The front wall which forms the back of the exterior façade and curves upward from the sanctuary entrance to form its ceiling is simply plastered and lined with small can lights at the base of the curve. The floor is framed in steel.
In general, the design scheme and choice of materials are intended to convey a feeling of openness and light. The pews are varnished blonde wood, with men’s and women’s sections separated by a row of white curtains. The overall look achieved is dramatic and fully in keeping with 1960s modern synagogue design, which relies strongly on the use of wood paneling for the ark and bimah. The ark is comprised by two vertical boxes of differing heights, illuminated by a gilded cylindrical lamp.
Offices and classrooms are relegated to the cellar and sub-cellar of the building, with a lobby and small office on the ground floor. The entrance, framed in glass and steel admits light into the base of the building. A playground has been set up to the right of the base.
The Tribeca East Historic District is an collection of intact cast-iron and masonry commercial buildings erected from mid-19th to the early 20th century when the area was a dry goods district. This typology is augmented by later office and bank buildings built in white marble, with classical details. The District comprises nearly 200 buildings in a range of 19th century styles, including Neo-Grec, Queen Anne, and Renaissance Revival. A number of striking commercial buildings clearly express Parisian (Second Empire) and Renaissance Venetian influences attesting to the neighborhood’s 19th-century cosmopolitan character.
The District is noted for its side streets which provide strong, uniform streetscapes. The longest of these, White Street “contains buildings which represent the full historical context of the area – a few early nineteenth century dwellings converted at mid-century for commercial use, many five- and six- story store and loft buildings in a variety of materials and mid-nineteenth-century styles, and a limited-number of late-nineteenth-century structures.”
The Civic Center Synagogue replaced a five-story 1866 Greek Revival brownstone on a block dominated cast-iron and marble façades. Together with its neighbors, this unusual building presented an uninterrupted row of 19th century lofts along White Street. Though his design received the 1968 AIA Honor Award, Breger was criticized for disrupting the street’s continuity. In fact, Breuer was highly conscious of the street line, as evident in synagogue’s height, scale, and setback, and the low walls of the entrance court.
The Civic Center Synagogue is an outstanding example of thin-shell concrete construction, which saw widespread use in the United States in the sixties and seventies. As a representative structure of that period, the synagogue gains additional importance in light of recent demolitions of historically significant thin-shell concrete buildings in other parts of the country. Optimization of thin-shell concrete structures in the twenties and thirties resulted in very thin roof structures, typified by Eero Saarinen’s Kresge Auditorium at MIT. The three concrete shells that comprise the Civic Center Synagogue are only 4-7 inches thick; the front wall shell is the thickest, acting as a “reversed-curve beam” in relation to the other two shells. Breger’s design, however, is most notable for its use of curved surfaces. According to the Association of Preservation Technology, these forms, “often exposed to public view from the street level, are a significant architectural feature of many thin-shell concrete buildings.”
Breger’s design emerged from a significant post-war shift in synagogue architecture in the United States. The tragedy of the Holocaust transformed American Jewry and its houses of worship. In the 1940s refugees and Holocaust survivors from Eastern Europe founded numerous synagogues in New York City. These differed remarkably from temples built by their wealthier counterparts in the 1920s. Newer congregations found little meaning in the pre-war Moorish revival style, shedding its ancient vocabulary in favor of Modern and Abstract Expressionist forms.
Breger owes much to his predecessors in the Civic Center Synagogue. The fifties and sixties were a golden age for Modern synagogue design. Jewish artists and architects were given complete leeway by congregations to produce visually stunning designs that were works of art inside and out. Percival Goodman, the most noted post-war synagogue architect, essentially created the Modern synagogue in 1951, with his design for B’nai Israel. The most renowned contemporary artists of the day contributed elements to the interior, sparking demand for Modern synagogues in communities across the United States.
Breger focused on creating a trascendent, adaptable space for a transient religious community, while hewing closely to Modern principles of synagogue architecture. In the Civic Center Synagogue, the architect sought to convey a sense of fluidity, in contrast to what he viewed as the "directional quality" of a Christian church. The design, while externally self-referential, is therefore, essentially Jewish and stylistically fitting to its purpose.
When it was completed, the Civic Center Synagogue warmly received by the architectural community. The editors of Architectural Forum were so impressed by Breuer's attention to site and context that they suggested the building as a model for other development projects in New York City; "Breuer's little synagogue in Lower Manhattan is an excellent demonstration for the need of more imaginative controls rather than the rule-of-thumb zoning regulations that encourage the indiscriminate and unrelated building of plazas." The Forum also lauded the soaring sanctuary, calling it "an impressive space, beautifully lit by day and night." In 1968, the AIA selected the building for its Honor award. The jury termed Breger's design "a very ingenious solution to a restricted urban site." The AIA Journal did not feature the synagogue interior but summarized the challenges of the program as "the exploitation of the chapel, the development of an open space, and the expression of this complex in a monumental way."
The Civic Center Synagogue is, in every sense, a product of its time. The design reflects the construction methods of the day as much as the sensibilities of the congregation. For a Jewish architect, trained in the Modern tradition, it was a vehicle for personal expression, an attempt to elicit the ethereal in the material. The building is a unified structure that encapsulates what is extraordinary about Modernism; its choice of materials, its abstraction of natural forms and its extensive use of illumination. Unencumbered by its 19th century context, Breuer's synagogue transcends its genre while paying tribute to its predecessors. Though it lacks the expansive backdrop of Lincoln Center or the business community of Midtown Manhattan, the building remains the most daring, innovative and resplendent of New York City's Modern synagogues.
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