The Eldridge Street Synagogue’s journey from a near ruin to a beautiful cultural center was long and deliberate. After more than 20 years of work, the restoration of the elaborate sanctuary was completed in 2007, except for one important element: the rose window. After reviewing proposals by 11 teams of artists, the synagogue’s board of directors and staff selected a contemporary design by the artist Kiki Smith and architect Deborah Gans. It is expected to be complete this summer.
There were no historical photographs of the original window, so it was impossible to recreate it accurately. “There was a great debate about what we should do about the window,” said Bonnie Dimun, executive director of the Museum at Eldridge Street. “Kiki and Deborah’s design resonated deeply with the board. We wanted a design that looked forward but also referenced the past.”
The design picks up existing motifs painted on the sanctuary’s walls. “The stars were what unified the place, which is very layered, very encrusted with ornament,” Gans said. “We thought the window was a beautiful opportunity to extend the wall into the light.”
“The building has always been a striking presence in the neighborhood,” added Amy Stein Milford, deputy director at the museum. “The builders drew on whatever was around, including both American symbols like five-pointed stars and Jewish symbols like the Star of David.”
Small, five-pointed stars swirl toward the window’s center, which features a large Star of David. The window will be fabricated from silicone-laminated glass, so light will come through gaps in the colored glass, unlike traditional leaded windows. Six curved ribs will provide structural support for the window and the cast-glass central star, which will extend out from the window, giving it texture and depth.
The round opening is currently filled with a window made from glass blocks, arranged in the shape of three tablets. The blocks will be saved and recycled as a donor and memorial wall on the ground floor.
This is not the first time that Gans and Smith have worked together: They’ve been designing an addition to Smith’s house for several years. “You either get along really well with the person or you don’t at all,” Gans said. “We get along well enough that she asked me to collaborate with her.”