Archtober Building of the Day #13
The Museum at Eldridge Street
12 Eldridge Street
The Columbus Day holiday and parade did not deter the Archtober faithful from attending a very special family event at the Museum at Eldridge Street. Archtober first visited the 1887 Eldridge Street Synagogue on on October 28, 2012 in the shadow of the looming Superstorm Sandy, to enjoy the fruits of a 20-year restoration project that culminated in the 2010 installation of the Kiki Smith rose window. Now, adding to the manifold riches to be found within is a fully realized Museum at Eldridge Street, the result of a collaboration of curators, historians, architects Archimuse, and graphic designers.
Amy Stein Milford, the deputy director of the Museum at Eldridge Street, supplemented tour guides Reuben Jackson, Archimuse, and Los Angeles–based Kracauer in a recounting of the challenges of maintaining a tiny Orthodox congregation, who worship in the museum, and the imperatives of the interpretation of the Jewish immigrant experience. The Eldridge Street Synagogue, one of only two landmark synagogues in New York (the other is Central Synagogue on Lexington Avenue at 55th Street), was the first purpose-built synagogue in the city. Now surrounded by Chinatown, this city, state, and national landmark represents the epicenter of historic Jewish life on the Lower East Side, and hosts 40,000 visitors of all faiths annually, said Milford.
Archimuse was challenged by five separate entrances to the structure that had to be rationalized on the street. Creating a coherent museum experience required that a maze of tiny spaces be opened up, exposing the original structure, and harmonizing the needs of a very contemporary exhibition with the needs of a small but dedicated congregation. The exhibition narrative starts with the map of the Great Jewish Migration, in the orientation experience. This map uses the traditional Jewish names from Eastern Europe to locate the sources of the two million Jews who left to freely practice their religion in the United States in the late 18th and early 20th centuries. The Journey is followed by “A New Home in a New Land,” a watercolor rendering of the facade of the synagogue executed in the early 20th century. The original deeds to the property and an original Star of David finial are on display.
“Such a City!” has Yiddish and Hebrew signs from the synagogue and local businesses, including one for Singer sewing machines. “Becoming American Jews” is split between “Order and Orthodoxy” and “Women and Children.” “To the Brink and Back” recounts the further journeys of the community beyond the Lower East Side, and the subsequent rescue and restoration of the historic synagogue.