Pomp and Prayer: A Synagogue for the Stars and Sculptors on the Lower East Side

Posted on: February 12th, 2021 at 5:03 am by

Like so many other former Lower East Side synagogues, 58 Rivington Street is a misnomer, now private residence and studios. In contrast to its religious history.

But this house of worship – known for much of its life as the First Warschauer Congregation – later became one for the stars. Celebrities of the neighborhood. Among the frequent congregants were the brother-composer-lyricist team of George and Ira Gershwin (both of whom grew up around the corner on Eldridge Street), Republican New York Senator Jacob Javits, the film producer Samuel Goldwyn (co-founder of MGM), and the comedian George Burns (who lived on the east end of Rivington Street near current Masaryk Towers).

However, the roots of this synagogue go deeper, back to the turn of last century. Immigrants from Lasi in Romania originally settled on the Lower East Side and established their synagogue at 131 Hester Street. In 1903, the congregation planned a spectacular upgrade for 58-60 Rivington, which at the time, were three-story brick buildings. The real estate was demolished that year, and the congregation tapped architect Emery Roth for design duties. The synagogue reflected the Moorish Revival style that harkened to the pre-Inquisition days of relative freedom in Spain.

The following year – in September 1904 – the congregation’s scrolls moved from Hester Street to the new Rivington Street synagogue. This was big news at the time. The New York Times remarked, “The east side yesterday saw a parade the duplicate of which, it is said, had never occurred before in this country.”

According to the write-up, thousands lined the streets, with 300 policemen escorting the marchers.  The scope of the procession was such that it took four hours to complete. A band led the parade, followed by an open carriage in which four men rode; two held staffs with the flag of Zion and the others held “a gorgeous cushion, on which rested a key of solid gold.”

Despite the pomp and circumstance, financial problems began mounting shortly after its debut. Apparently, the construction costs caught up with the congregation, which eventually closed in 1907. The First Warschauer Congregation, founded in 1889 by Polish Jews from Warsaw, purchased the property, and moved from 84 Suffolk Street a few blocks to the east.

By 1973, though, the building was vacant and a shooting gallery for junkies. Hale Gurland, a sculptor living in SoHo at the time, described the scene to Interview magazine, “People were going inside the building because the doors were out, junkies were shooting up. I walked in, and the place looked like Dresden after the bombs.”

Gurland had seen a “for sale” sign, and was interested. Yet, it wasn’t until six years later that his career afforded the ability to purchase the derelict synagogue. He transformed the space into artist studios and living quarters, but kept the facade mostly intact.

He still lives and works there.

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