Fifth Avenue Synagogue
The Fifth Avenue Synagogue falls within the boundaries of the Upper East Side Historic District. The district was established in 1982.
The Fifth Avenue Synagogue came to be in 1958 when members from the Congregation Zichron Ephraim, the famous synagogue now referred to as the Park East Synagogue, left the congregation in protest of the decision to seat men and women together. The founding members included: Henry Hirsch, Max Kettner, Judge Gustav Rosenberg and Hermann Merkin. The Fifth Avenue Synagogue was erected just a few city blocks away in an effort to capture the culture of a modern day, Orthodox synagogue. Keeping with the architect's vision of the modern day synagogue, a space for worship and community, the programmatic plan encapsulated many different functions and roles, all within the double wide lot on east 62nd street between Fifth Avenue and Madison Avenue.
This 5 story stone clad synagogue with rooftop penthouse and play area sits on lots 5 and 7 of block 1377 in New York City on East 62nd Street between Fifth Avenue and Madison Avenue. The notable facade features a red granite base and upper floors clad in limestone. The facade is penetrated by a grid system of vertical cat-eye windows of stained glass by renowned glass artist, Robert Pinart. Inside there is a rich programmatic scheme envisioned by the architect, Percival Goodman. The plan embodied the three elements Goodman saw as necessary in a modern synagogue; community, education and ritual. The combination of social gathering spaces, a day care and school for children and the traditional Orthodox sanctuary establish this within Goodman’s plan. The programmatic plan consisted of the following spaces;
1. Sanctuary to seat a total of 400, of which about 150 are seated in an upper balcony
2. Chapel to seat 80
3. Reception area with kitchen
4. Banquet Hall seating 150 with kitchen
5. Library-Board room and offices
6. Club Room
7. Gymnasium and Locker Room
8. Garden Space
9. Custodian’s Apartment
10. Rooftop play area
Percival Goodman sought to re-envision and reinterpret the modern day synagogue after the horrors of WWII. With WWII there also came prosperity, including the growing Jewish Community, allowing for the construction of new modern synagogues across the country. Over 50 of them were designed by Goodman from 1951 well into the 1960’s, making him one of the most prolific designers of synagogues in the country. Previously synagogues were fashioned in styles unrelated to Judaism, or were simply adaptations of the conventional neo-classical and colonial church styles, modified only in plan for specific spiritual needs. Goodman sought to break from this tradition and create a synagogue from which modern society could worship, gather and identify with. Goodman described his effort in his manuscript, The Challenge of Church Design as
“The most important elements differentiating the church of today, whether it be Catholic, Protestant, or Jewish, from the past, is programmatic and its implications are perhaps to the difference between the monastic Romanesque church and the great cathedrals of the late middle ages. The change lies in the emphasis on community activities, for increasing importance is given the school and social arrangement, with a corresponding diminution in the facilities for worship. The church or temple is becoming a community center.”
Often his plans would incorporate various spaces with moveable walls to adjust to specific functions of the time ranging from small worship sessions to large ones, as well as creating spaces for social gatherings and celebrations. Often, modern art was integrated into the scheme in the form of windows, spiritual sculpture and tapestries. Within the Fifth Avenue Synagogue special importance is given to the most notable feature on the façade, the repeating cat eyed windows sporting glass in bright shades of red, yellow, blue and green. This motif is repeated inside the Synagogue within the worship space on the third floor. There is also a modern sculpture depicting a menorah by Martin Craig on an elevated granite base to the left of the central entrance. A similar, more angular version of the window shape is also present in recessed form as light-wells in the reception room on the entrance level. Otherwise the interior is clean and devoid of color.
The Fifth Avenue Synagogue resides in one of the most desirable areas of the city. With Central Park just a block to the west as well as some of the most prominent addresses, home to the city's elite families and organizations, the Synagogue is aptly located to cater to their spiritual needs. The LPC, when writing the designation report described the area under the Upper East Side Historic District as such:
"The area of the Upper East Side Historic District remains one of the most desirable in the city. Developed in the late 19th and early 20th centuries to serve the needs and tastes of New York's upper classes, the area continues to attract those who appreciate its choice location adjoining Central Park and its handsome town houses and luxurious apartment buildings. A number of mansions are now used by prestigious private institutions, United Nations missions, and consulates, which have helped to maintain the elegant character of the district. Madison Avenue has become one of the most vibrant commercial streets in the city, achieving a striking character from the stylish storefronts, undergoing regular change with new tenants to keep up with contemporary design trends. Today the area retains the attractive residential qualities which originally made it the most fashionable section of the city."
When the founding members of the synagogue set out to commission their new synagogue they were met with protests from many organizations in their desired neighborhood, the Upper East Side. Known for its luxurious hotels and shops as well as notable historic landmarks, many felt the Orthodox Synagogue was not a good fit and made it difficult to raise the funds. According to the Synagogue’s history section on their website, Henry Hirsch bought the land for the Synagogue, where it stands today, before all of the funds were raised. He is quoted to have stated to his wife, Myrtle, “If we wait until the money is raised, we will never have a synagogue.”
The Synagogue was involved in the Bernie Madoff scandal in 2009. It was reported that members lost a combination of over $5 million dollars. The money was brought into the scheme by the then president, Ezra Merkin, whose father had helped to found the congregation in 1958. There were even rumors that many members would quit if Ezra Merkin, who was involved in bringing in the money for Madoff from the congregation members, became chairman. At the time he was serving at the congregation president. As a result of the Madoff scandal he stepped down as president and thus avoided future scandal.
The Fifth Avenue Synagogue was a different adaptation of Goodman’s language of the modern synagogue. Almost all of his synagogues built before and after this one were located on large suburban plots of land, allowing the programs to spread out into a cohesive landscape. In the urban context, Goodman was forced to rethink this spreading effect and adapt it to the narrow lots found in New York City. By stacking the programs Goodman was able to devise just over 9,000 sq ft of functional space on a 50’x100’ plot of land. The distinctive cat eye windows are said to actually represent leaves, a symbolic representation of peace, an ideal upheld by the Jewish faith. Founding members sought to create a synagogue that held to true to all of the beliefs and values of Judaism as well as serve the growing significance of community. Beginning in the early 1950’s Percival Goodman began to make a name for himself as the foremost designer of modern American Synagogues, by the time the dream of a new synagogue in the Upper West Side began to be realized he was the perfect choice of architect. During the same time that Goodman was designing the Fifth Avenue synagogue, a townhouse 130 East 64th St between Park Avenue and Lexington Avenue was given a new façade in 1956. Designed by Durell Stone it possessed a façade that is evocative of Goodman’s design; a vertical and sheer stone clad façade with geometric perforations to allow sunlight in. Stone’s design is on a smaller scale covering a level of larger windows behind whereas Goodman’s perforations form the actual windows themselves. A contemporary in the neighborhood this could have potentially served as inspiration for Goodman’s façade.
As one of Goodman's only urban synagogues this building is historically significant. It possesses all aspects Goodman considered necessary in a modern American synagogue, but within an urban context.
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