For preservationists, the story of the Meseritz Synagogue proved an all-too-familiar tale: The century-old East Village building was deteriorating. The congregation was dwindling, along with its finances.
So in July, when developers offered $750,000 for the East Sixth Street property – and a spot in the planned new building for the congregation to worship – the synagogue’s board voted overwhelming to sell.
Local activists immediately sounded a call to action – mounting their latest preservation effort as the neighborhood’s historic churches and synagogues become hot commodities in the age of gentrification.
“[Houses of worship] all over the East Side give up their plot of valuable land,” said Edwin Torres, “and developers give them a place in the basement.”
Torres, a community organizer who fought to save nearby St. Brigid’s Roman Catholic Church from demolition, is among those striving to preserve the historic religious architecture that punctuates the Lower East Side and the East Village. Though local lore, for some, tends to begin with punks and anarchists who flocked the areas in the 1970s, the East Side’s story rests much deeper in time.
Generations of immigrants worked, lived and prayed in buildings that preservationists like Torres worry could become unrecognizable or simply be razed, under development deals. Their anxiety increases as glass towers replace tenements.
Preservationists are buoyed by success stories, like the Eldridge Street Synagogue. The community rallied to save the crumbling, circa 1887 building as it neared its 100th birthday. In 2007, after 20 years of restoration, the synagogue reopened as a museum.
The fight to save St. Brigid’s also appears to have been won. After the New York Archdiocese closed the parish in 2001, community and preservation groups convinced the New York State Supreme Court to rescue the building. An anonymous donor secured the 160-year-old church’s fate earlier this year by giving $10 million for its renovation.
A Cautionary Tale
Though developers rescinded their offer to buy the Meseritz Synagogue in August, preservationists aren’t ready to declare victory.
They look to St. Anne’s on East 12th Street as a reminder of what is at stake. While the church’s façade was saved, a 26-story dormitory for New York University students was erected on the property – creating what critics call an eyesore.
“There are some things that are sacred,” Torres said. “They wouldn’t think of doing that to the Washington Monument.”
For now, Meseritz remains as it has for a century. And that suits the synagogue’s longtime neighbor Mike Feeney, 75, just fine.
“When something gets over a hundred years old, you just don’t want to tear it down,” he said.
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