Conservancy holds exclusive tour of historic Queens Synagogues
Three Queens synagogues the Conservancy recently helped guide to National and State registers of Historic Places were the focus of an exclusive behind-the-scenes tour, Thursday, March 11.
President of the David Berg Foundation, Michele Cohn Tocci, and President of the Cahnman Foundation Inc., Ira H. Jolles, joined Conservancy board members and staff on the tour, which included Astoria Center of Israel, Free Synagogue of Flushing and Rego Park Jewish Center. The group enjoyed a delicious Bukharin Kosher barbecue afterwards.
In addition to their handsome architecture, all three synagogues feature magnificent original liturgical art and decorative finishes: murals, mosaics, and stained glass by prominent artists and skilled studios.
Individually, the three synagogues are highly intact monuments, important repositories of religious decorative arts, and dynamic cultural institutions, each housing a variety of community arts and education programs. National Register listing makes these properties eligible for the New York Landmarks Conservancy’s Sacred Sites grant program as well as state historic preservation matching grants. The Conservancy worked to get these synagogues listed as part of an ongoing historic synagogue survey of New York’s five boroughs. The Conservancy retained architectural historian Tony Robins to complete 10 National Register nominations, building on the Conservancy’s survey research and outreach to each congregation. Funding for this project was provided by the Preserve New York grant program of the Preservation League of New York State and the New York State Council on the Arts.
The first stop on the tour was the Astoria Center of Israel (27-35 Crescent Street)—one of the most intact of the six surviving early 20th century synagogues in Queens still in synagogue use.
Rabbi Jonathan Pearl, Mrs. Judy Pearl and long-time member and trustee, synagogue preservation advocate, and daughter of founding members, Sydelle Diner, guided the group throughout the historic synagogue.
Astoria Center was designed by architect Louis Allen Abramson and built in 1925-26 when the Jewish population of Queens was still relatively small. The synagogue’s two-story tall, five-bay wide façade, in brick with cast-stone trim, is defined by double-height Ionic piers, flanking round-arched windows, supporting an entablature and topped by a balustrade. Its round-arched entrance is topped with a cartouche within which is inscribed a magen david.
Tour goers received a rare look at one of synagogue’s most interesting features: A set of murals added a few years after its construction by French artist Louis Pierre Rigal. Figurative painting in synagogues is relatively rare because a common reading of the second of the Ten Commandments suggests that it forbids such representation.
Leaving Astoria, the tour made its way to the Free Synagogue of Flushing (136-23 Sanford Avenue). The Free Synagogue is a 1927 Neo-Classical Revival synagogue designed by architect Maurice Courland and was established as part of the “Free Synagogue” movement.
Synagogue leadership including Rabbi Michael Weisser, Cantor Steven Pearlston, Board President, Florence Boyar and Linda Mandell, synagogue member, preservation advocate, and treasurer of the Queens Historical Society were present along with Restoration Fundraising Consultant Holly Kaye and Merrill Hesch, Downstate Grants Officer with the NYS Office of Parks, Recreation, and Historic Preservation.
Before entering the sanctuary the group viewed the grand, neo-Georgian temple front, approached by a sweeping flight of stone steps. The building is adorned with ornamental Judaic motifs, notably a seven-branched menorah. Inside, the sanctuary is lit by enormous leaded-glass windows on Jewish themes, while the crowning shallow dome rises to a leaded-glass skylight with a magen david (star or shield of David) in its center.
The Rego Park Jewish Center (97-30 Queens Boulevard) was the third destination. It is a modernist synagogue designed by Frank Grad & Sons, built in 1948 to serve the fast-growing Jewish population of the area.
Synagogue Board Chair and member for more than 50 years, Ruth Lowenstein, 4th Vice President, Ruthe Unger, and Rabbi Samuel Waidenbaum were on hand to guide the tour through this large synagogue-center.
At the Center’s façade, just above the entrances, perhaps rests the center’s most striking feature: a long mosaic, using color and geometric patterning in a Modern approach-but incorporating Jewish religious objects including a Torah scroll, the tablets of the Ten Commandments, and the ritual symbols of several Jewish holidays, designed by noted Hungarian-born artist A. Raymond Katz. Inside the main sanctuary, Katz designed six tall windows, three of which include the creative use of Hebrew calligraphy for which he is known. Named for the three daily prayer services (and the Biblical patriarchs with which each service is traditionally associated), they each have a complex design interwoven with letters, symbols and abstract shapes and colors.
Following lunch there was just enough time to drive by Congregation Tifereth Israel in Corona, which is the oldest surviving synagogue in Queens. Estee Lauder’s parents were early members and are memorialized here. The Conservancy is currently overseeing a $1.5 million exterior restoration.