The day we all knew was coming is finally here. Beth Hamedrash Hagadol – ravaged and gutted by fire seven months ago – is ready for razing. It had been sitting with exposed guts for the better part of a year.
The proper permits have been filed with Department of Buildings, and a wrecking crew was dispatched earlier this week to begin the arduous process of careful demolition. Yesterday saw the arrival of a cherry picker squad armed with chisel and jackhammers to dislodge bricks that were first placed here in 1850.
The work is reportedly under careful watch of an engineer hired by the Landmarks Preservation Commission, and includes removal of the building walls until at a “stable level.”
The Landmarks Preservation Commission, which bestowed protective status in 1967, approved the demolition, albeit partial, of Beth Hamedrash Hagadol back in July. Unstable portions of the synagogue would be removed, but the preservationist body urged engineers to proceed cautiously in order to save as much of the historic site as possible. Most of the existing structure will fall, and the remainder incorporated into the proposed development.
Said development is a collaborative senior housing project sidling alongside the Hong Ning residence next door at 40 Norfolk Street. The joint effort between Rabbi Greenbaum of Beth Hamedrash Hagadol (it closed in 2007) and the Chinese-American Planning Council was allegedly underway before the destruction of the 167-year-old synagogue, in order to create something that would serve both the Jewish and Chinese communities alike. The original plan was the house of worship would be rehabilitated through the sale of its air rights (estimated pre-fire at some $12 million), and there would be affordable housing and community space.
(The latest proposal was to go before Community Board 3 consideration in September, but was scratched from the agenda.)
Arsonist youths ended that potential with a three-alarm blaze on Mother’s Day last spring. It was reported at the time that a 14-year-old boy allegedly torched it on May 14. He was arrested days after the massive fire and charged with third-degree arson. A day later, though, the minor was reportedly released into parental custody without any charges. Two pals who were with him during the burn job – he allegedly lit a curtain on fire – were considered “witnesses,” according to NYPD Commissioner James O’Neill at the time.