Lectures and Other Events

Ecumenical Panel Discussion And Reception - May 3

-Park East Synagogue, 163 East 67th Street

-Park East Synagogue, 163 East 67th Street

Panel Moderator: Architectural historian and Columbia University Professor Andrew Dolkart

-Park East Synagogue, 163 East 67th Street

-Park East Synagogue, 163 East 67th Street

As part of our 30th anniversary celebration for the Conservancy’s Sacred Sites program, Conservancy members filled Park East Synagogues’ beautiful Moorish Revival sanctuary on May 3rd for an ecumenical panel and reception. Reinventing Religious Landmarks for the 21st Century: Serving Communities in Beautiful Spaces, an Interfaith Discussion was an opportunity to hear from prominent clergy in leadership at historic NYC religious institutions about the day-to-day opportunities and challenges posed by their beautiful and historic facilities.



VIDEO OF PROGRAM, on Jewish Broadcasting Service:

Professor Andrew Dolkart of Columbia University’s Historic Preservation program moderated the panel, mentioning that he had worked on the 1984-1985 surveys of historic religious properties which led to the launch of the Conservancy’s Sacred Sites program thirty years ago. Prof. Dolkart first asked each panelist to speak briefly about their experience at their respective historic religious properties, and then followed up with additional questions.

Rabbi Arthur Schneier, an international advocate for human rights and religious freedom, spoke of his Vienna childhood, witnessing the destruction of his synagogue on Kristallnacht in 1938. This personal experience, led him to advocate for the now-126 year old synagogue’s landmark designation in 1979, after a developer approached him with a plan to replace the synagogue with a 44-story apartment tower with community space for the synagogue’s use.

Fr. Anthony Andreassi, c.o., Parochial Vicar of the 1872, Patrick Keely –designed, Oratory Church of St. Boniface in downtown Brooklyn, spoke about how the architecture, beauty and history of the church has contributed to the growth and revitalization of the parish, which began declining in membership as early as World War One, as downtown Brooklyn grew increasingly commercial. In 1990, the Order of St. Philip Neri assumed control of the site, moving from the nearby St. James Cathedral; cleaning, renewing and renovating the buildings, establishing music and educational programming, and growing the parish membership with great music and welcoming, inclusive programming. Physically, the church was cleaned and repaired; pews were removed and replaced with flexible seating for concerts, worship services and events; a narthex was created at the rear of the church, separated from the sanctuary by a modern glass screen wall; and the former school repurposed for lectures, classes, including Zen meditation and yoga, and events. St. Boniface is now a flourishing parish, having grown from 30 people to 1000 households since 1990.

Rev. Kathleen Liles of the Episcopal Church of Christ and St. Stephens, in the Upper West Side Historic District, spoke about how the church, dating from the 1880’s, when the Upper West Side was the “country”, retains a perpendicular orientation and a lovely front lawn. Rev. Liles noted that “God works in mysterious ways,” with the renovation of the church interior coming as a result of a disaster, the collapse of the ceiling in 2004, which exposed beautiful original stenciled finishes, sealed and invisible behind walls and ceilings installed when the church was expanded in 1897. Liles noted that the parish is continually adapting and improving the landmark site for contemporary needs: over the last 15 years projects have enabled the church to host a feeding program serving 95 people daily, an active concert series, the launch of a new nursery school and a landscaped front garden.

Real Estate attorney, former City Council Member, and lobbyist Ken Fisher noted that while serving in Council, his Brooklyn district encompassed all or part of seven historic districts, including Brooklyn Heights, incorporating “a Roman Catholic Cathedral, a Russian Orthodox Cathedral, a Greek Orthodox Cathedral, a Lebanese Cathedral, a Greek Orthodox Cathedral, a Belarusian Cathedral, and every type of Protestant church including from Episcopal to Congregational to Unitarian, a Quaker Meeting House, an Ethical Culture Meeting House, two Buddhist Temples, four mosques, and the Jehovah Witness’ world headquarters.” Fisher noted that “the needs of those congregations was a large part of my work in the council,” and that “designating and regulating religious landmarks was one of the thorniest issues” that he dealt with as chair of the Council’s landmarks subcommittee. Fisher further noted that very few individually designated religious landmarks have been able unlock the real estate dollars embodied in their unrealized, un-built “air rights,” by transferring these air rights from their landmark properties to other sites for development, thereby generating income for landmark maintenance and mission.

Professor Dolkart noted that the three clergy on the panel had all presided over substantial membership and program growth, and asked “Do you think that being in a distinguished, old, historic building helps attract members to the congregation?” Rev. Liles responded “that is certainly the case in some ways for us,” adding that “we’re a small, neighborhood church, and rather than being an avenue, like most of the large, cavernous Episcopal churches in Manhattan, we’re on a side street, and we were originally a chapel rather than a full-size church, and that has tremendous advantages to us. For one thing, it’s not as much to take care of, and for secondly, it attracts people who are actually looking for a small, intimate, country-type church” in the city. This small size and country character are embodied in the landmark designation.

Rev. Andreassi responded, “in talking to some of the younger people in their 20’s, 30’s, and 40’s, who may have been raised in suburban, post-war churches, one of the attractions to our church is the beauty of it, the architectural significance and even the acoustics of it. There is an allure to this historical space that has been well preserved and modernized but has kept its charm.” Rabbi Schneier felt that the historic character of Park East Synagogue is “appreciated, but is not the primary reason for joining,” concluding that “the programming is the primary attraction.” Rabbi Schneier then noted that the original wooden pews are uncomfortable during a long service, but acknowledged that there is “a sense of history, a sense of awe” that the historic sanctuary provides.

Prof. Dolkart then asked the clergy panelists to discuss what they have done, and what other things they could do, to “reinvent” their congregations for the 21st century. Rabbi Schneier talked about the acquisition of two brownstones on 68th Street, and a property swap with the Fire Department, to facilitate construction of a modern day school and community facility behind the historic synagogue. Finally, Dolkart asked how important it was to invite the wider community in to participate in the activities of the historic religious institution. Rev. Ageassi and Rev. Liles both responded regarding the need for religious institutions to invite interfaith partners to participate in church programming. Ken Fisher commented that in New York City, many religious institutions are located in immigrant neighborhoods, with unique ethnic programming which might not be accessible to other city residents.

Finally, Dolkart invited Ken Fisher to speak briefly about Landrex, a proposed land use remedy for the 180+ individually designated religious and nonprofit-owned institutions in the city which, unlike Christ and St. Stephen’s, have not been able to sell their air rights to an adjacent high rise development. Fisher noted that over a 30 year period, this proposed air rights transfer mechanism would generate $600 million for the preservation and maintenance of these 180 nonprofit-owned landmarks, an important public benefit. Fisher noted: “Landmarks are not just about the neighborhood where they’re located. The entire city benefits from these structures. Not just because we’re enriched every time we look at them, but also because it brings tourist and economic development and the like.”

Prof. Dolkart concluded, “Buildings have lives. Buildings aren’t just brick and mortar that stands there vacant and meaningless; buildings are about people. By preserving the building, you’re preserving the use that goes into it. That’s not unique to religious buildings, but all landmarks: residential, institutional, religious and public buildings. The Conservancy is not just saving bricks and mortar just for the sake of it, because someone thinks it’s pretty on the street, but to make these buildings useful, vital parts of our communities into the future.”


About Park East Synagogue

Founded in 1888, with its cornerstone laid in 1889, Park East Synagogue was based on the designs of German-born architects Schneider and Herter. Park East’s architectural style is Byzantine, with dome-like cupolas set at various levels, each surmounted by a slender shaft supporting a Star of David. The facade of the building rises from an elaborately designed arched portico. Stained-glass windows are distinctive features of the synagogue. From within the sanctuary one appreciates two extraordinary circular stained-glass windows, one above the ark in pink, blue, and silver, called “the Moon” and the other, “the Sun”, in the rear wall, facing the street.

The building was designated a New York City landmark on January 8, 1980.

The Conservancy thanks Park East Synagogue for underwriting the evening’s reception.