Can Beth Hamedrash Hagadol Bounce Back from this Arsonist Inferno?

Posted on: May 18th, 2017 at 5:14 am by

Photo: Kol Haolam

It’s become international news – the three-alarm fire that engulfed the inner sanctuary of the 167-year-old 60 Norfolk Street, formerly home to Beth Hamedrash Hagadol (“BHH”).

The investigation is still ongoing, but here are some updates.

First, at the top of our list:

  1. Was it arson? Yes. The 14-year-old kid who allegedly started the fire – a Lower East Sider – was arrested Tuesday evening and charged with third-degree arson.
  2. What about the other two suspects? The two friends reportedly turned him in, and are being treated as “witnesses.”
  3. Have developers in recent years eyed these coveted grounds for potential new projects? Yep.
  4. Did the property owner – Rabbi Greenbaum – previously consider de-landmarking 60 Norfolk Street in order to activate development? Well, at one point, yes. But he eventually had a “change of heart,” and previously stated that he would happily remain should restoration materialize (pre-fire, of course).

Here is some background from our BHH coverage over the years:

2012:

The historic structure received landmark status in 1967, and now, this very-hard-to-believe and disturbing news has washed over the Lower East Side.

The leadership of the synagogue itself has asked for permission to demolish the building, citing that it is 45,000 square-feet of potential residential real estate and a new space for the congregation to flourish. We understand the financial burden on their shoulders, but we know there is another way.

2014:

According to a recent analysis funded by the New York Landmarks Conservancy, the interior—including painted murals and intricate detailing—is beyond saving. But the outside, with its two soaring towers, elegant steps and arched windows, is “almost surprisingly” stable, said Ann-Isabel Friedman, director of the sacred-sites program at the Landmarks Conservancy…That is, as long as the “dignity” of the space is preserved, said Rabbi Greenbaum. “No dance clubs.”

Even more interesting is that the Essex Crossing is willing to rehab the landmark for a potential barter of its air rights. That’s what the Journal hears, anyway.

The inner sanctuary was the part of the building that had suffered the most decay pre-fire. Repairing just that would have been the bulk of the expense. The New York Landmarks Conservancy analysis attested to that. Now, restoring the historic interior is no longer of concern. Preservationists have been in talks with developers, old and new money deep pockets, community boards et. al. for years trying to find a way to muster up the paltry (in comparison to Essex Crossing developments) $8 million dollars to restore BHH to its original glory.

Photo: Landmarks Conservancy

At this very moment, one potential silver lining is that BHH is still upright with four walls and a foundation. Standing. It’s unclear how badly the remaining skeletal structure was compromised, if at all. Department of Buildings and the Landmark Preservation Commission are assessing the extent of damage.

The FDNY also stated this week, however, that the basement is completely intact. It did not collapse. Even the library remains below-ground!

Maybe I am overly “glass full,” but in this day and age of preservation, you have to be. So let’s (er) raise the roof, raise the money and rebuild the inner sanctuary. The mural expenses and woodworking etc. blew out the window with the fireball (I know, I am pushing it) so we can start fresh while still keeping the bones of the historic structure…right? RIGHT?

Sentiments from those on the streets the other night:

“My family went to shul there. My memories of it as a child are priceless and to know that one day it would be active again, so I could bring my children here just as I went, would be a marvelous fate. Can we rebuild?” -Jason

“The synagogue was last man standing. I knew this was going to happen. I wish I was wrong. It didn’t fall though and it’s been there my whole life so they can probably fix it.”Maria

“My ancestors went there. Eventually switching to a temple in the Bronx, the tropes and hymns were ours and we never quite adapted to our new temple. Going down to the Lower and seeing it still standing, after all this time, it gave me hope that the Lower wouldn’t be completely destroyed by new condos and developments. It’s still standing. That’s a sign.” -Allison

“I know it was arson. A fireball that hot, the FDNY got there in 4 minutes and were shocked at how hot it was burning. But still, it stands. Two towers, so symbolic. We can mourn the loss of another building, but this time let’s get together and save what is still standing. Seriously. It is still standing! Kinda like the Jews.” -Juan

(HA!)

“Ohhh, I thought that was like a shitty club or something. Real cool woodwork, though they should totally fix it. Start a gofundme or kickstarter. I’ll put some money on it. Would make a real dope coffee shop with outside seating.” -Marc

Marc, Kickstarter?  Shoot me an email if you read this. Perhaps instead of devastation and heartbreak, what we actually witnessed on Sunday was some kind of twisted magic … something like a Lower East Side miracle.

Let’s now rebuild from the inside out. Don’t give up! We don’t have much of the Lower East Side left. The original, culture rich, historic, unyielding Lower East Side.

Amen.

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