Why this Blog Exists

To make the case for expanding the Park Slope Historic District

Saturday, March 13, 2010

Park Slope Jewish Center - Part 2

This series of posts about the Park Slope Jewish Center draws from "Building on a Strong Foundation," a history exhibit currently on view at PSJC, and from the building's National Register of Historic Places Designation Report.

In 1925, Congregation Tifereth Israel constructed a new synagogue at the corner of 8th Avenue and 14th Street in Park Slope, around the corner from its previous home in two adjoining row houses in 14th Street, discussed in our previous post.

Congregation Tifereth Israel
(Park Slope Jewish Center)
Allen A. Blaustein, architect - 1925

From the Designation Report:

Architect Allen A. Blaustein designed the synagogue in an eclectic fashion with Romanesque and Baroque elements...

In the center of the upper facade is a large rose window. Usually rose windows are associated with Romanesque or Gothic style Christian churches, but here the Star of David motif in the stained glass reveals the Jewish affiliation...

Perhaps the most distinctive features of the synagogue are the bold blind arches of cast stone running along the upper part of the south and east elevations. These arches spring from unusual tripartite arched corbels with Romanesque foliate designs...

14th Street elevation, from Designation Report

Congregation Tifereth Israel's building was constructed in 1925, at the peak of the synagogue boom and at a time of optimism and growth of the Jewish population of Brooklyn. Its size, elaborate detailing, and fine craftsmanship all exhibit a pride and desire to create a lasting presence in the neighborhood. The domed skylight is typical of its period. The dome was seen as a symbol of unity, an essential Jewish concept.

While the synagogue was built during a period of prosperity, anti-Jewish feeling was strong in America. The synagogue contains a small upstairs room that was designed to function, if need be, as a sukkah, during the holiday of Sukkot. Instead of building a sukkah outside, where it would be exposed to hostile view, the members could celebrate the holiday inside, in privacy. The sukkah room was designed with a retractable skylight in the roof, so the room could be made exposed to the open sky, which is a requirement of a sukkah. Another tangible reminder of the presence of outside threats is the grating that protects the stained glass from vandalism.

The eclectic design of Park Slope Jewish Center can be seen as part of the prevailing historicist attitude of the period, as well as part of the continued search by Jews for an historic precedent for their architecture. The idea of historicism was a dominant force in the cultural life of the nation during the late nineteenth century and early decades of the twentieth century. Architects and architectural patrons were particularly influenced by historicist ideas, appropriating the design, details, and symbols of the architecture of past civilizations and turning them into the symbols of the importance of contemporary America. In contrast, historicism could also be employed to reinforce and/or protect the ethnic differences between immigrant groups or to separate them from the mainstream culture. Since large synagogues began to appear in American cities before the Civil War, the appropriate style for these buildings was a widely debated subject. Moorish designs prevailed in the mid-nineteenth century but by the final years of the nineteenth century, following the discovery of the ruins of the Roman Classical style Second Temple of Jerusalem, a bold Classicism became the accepted style for synagogues. However, by the 1920s, this Classical style had acquired generalized associations with American nationalism and was widely used for public buildings such as banks and courthouses and Jews searched for a new style for their synagogues. Park Slope Jewish Center's design is evocative of the Romanesque architecture of eleventh and twelfth century Europe. Many of Tifereth Israel's original members were from Germany where Romanesque architecture had flourished. The architect employed elements of the Romanesque and combined them with typically Jewish symbolism to make for an inventive, yet eclectic design.

Congregation Tifereth Israel - detail
National Register of Historic Places Designation Report

...Park Slope Jewish Center retains a high degree of historic integrity and is a distinctive architectural, cultural, and religious landmark. Today, the synagogue's continued presence in the Park Slope neighborhood is testimony to the principles of religious freedom so integral to our nation's history.

From the "Building on a Strong Foundation" exhibit:

In 1925, Tifereth Israel built what is now our building, for $125,000. The first services were held on the High Holidays, even though "no more than the bare four walls" were in place. A plan to build a community center in the adjoining lot was never realized.

This building was erected in 1925, and the honor of laying the cornerstone went to the highest bidder. Later, a ceremonial procession brought the torah scrolls here from their former home around the corner. Those carrying the scrolls had paid for the honor with generous donations.

East/north elevations

Note the plain brick north wall facing the side garden, where the congregation intended to build an adjoining community center.

Next, we will explore another early Park Slope congregation, B'nai Jacob, which merged with Tifereth Israel in 1942.

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