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Beyond the Village and Back: The Brotherhood Synagogue, 28 Gramercy Park South

In our series Beyond the Village and Back, we take a look at some great landmarks throughout New York City outside of Greenwich Village, the East Village, and NoHo, celebrate their special histories, and reveal their (sometimes hidden) connections to the Village.

The Brotherhood Synagogue, ca. 2010.

For more than 70 years, The Brotherhood Synagogue, located at 28 Gramercy Park South, has sought to meet the spiritual and cultural needs of its members in a welcoming, progressive community, while working to make religious brotherhood a living reality. It became the first Jewish congregation in New York City to open a homeless shelter and was also progressive in their longstanding outreach to the non-Jewish community, including joint classes and celebrations with other downtown churches. Its striking brownstone landmarked home on the south side of Gramercy Park, one of New York City’s true gems of preservation, is rich in history and architecture, following some of the most important strains of the social and physical development of our city, with a special connection to the Underground Railroad, religious reconciliation and cooperation, and the historic preservation movement in New York City. And one of those strains ran right through Greenwich Village.

In 1859, when an early Quaker group, 20th Street Meeting House, expanded beyond the capacity of its home on Orchard Street, it acquired four lots on Gramercy Park South for $24,000, and commissioned the architectural firm of King & Kellum to construct the new space. King & Kellum was recognized at the time for their work at the Tweed Courthouse on Chambers Street and for elegant cast-iron buildings such as McCreery’s on Broadway and 11th Street.

The Brotherhood Synagogue, ca. late-1800s.

The original Quaker group had to obtain special permission to build a non-residential structure on Gramercy Park. The building was built using an innovative combination of heavy timber and iron post and beam. The exterior materials included light brick and a Dorchester Olive stone façade facing Gramercy Park. The design, created with the help of members, was considered unusual as it was “less severe” than most other Quaker buildings. The Secretary at the original meeting wrote that, “great care had been taken so that every person who saw it would say it was exactly suited for a Friends Meetinghouse: entirely plain, neat and chaste; of good proportions but avoiding all useless ornament.

Interestingly, while the Quakers were traditionally pacifists, members of the 20th Street Meeting House took an active role in the Abolitionist movement during the Civil War era.  Some members traveled South to open trade schools for freed slaves. Even more significantly, historical records indicate that members of the 20th Street Meeting House sheltered fugitive slaves on the second floor of the building – a stop on the Underground Railroad. A tunnel underneath the building that was used as an escape route for runaway slaves is still visible and accessible today.

While the 20th Street Meeting House was flourishing, at 141-145 West 13th Street in the West Village, the home of the Village Presbyterian Church was facing a challenging future. Built in 1846-47 in the Greek Revival style, the classical balance and symmetry of the façade mask an interesting history, one that involved several rebuildings, after decimating fires in 1855 and 1902; its eventual transformation into well-hidden apartments; and a strange turn in politics that helped Grover Cleveland secure the Presidency in the 1884 election.

The Village Presbyterian Church at 141-145 West 13th Street, ca. 1903.

In the 20th century, as immigration changed the neighborhood’s demographics, the church merged with other Presbyterian congregations to remain afloat. In the 1950s, it would eventually share its space with a different faith entirely.

Rabbi Irving J. Block and his wife Dr. Phyllis Robinove Block in the 1990s.

In 1954, a year after his ordination, Rabbi Irving J. Block (1923-2002) formed his congregation with an initial membership of 23, writing in a journal at the time: ”The idea of brotherhood is as ancient an idea as the Bible. What we are aiming for is the realization of these values in the daily lives of men and women.” He dreamed of a congregation committed to the sanctity of Jewish life – one that worshiped together in a traditional manner and that would work in innovative ways to improve the well-being of the greater New York City community. With no place to preach, Rabbi Block turned to the Village Presbyterian Church.

Village Presbyterian Church on West 13th Street

The Brotherhood Synagogue would use the Village Presbyterian Church as their home for the next two decades, until 1975 when the building was sold and turned into apartments.

Meanwhile, a peaceful schism that had split the Quakers into two branches in 1828, the Hicksites and Orthodoxes, was suddenly being revisited. In 1956, The New York Times reported on a movement towards the reconciliation between the Orthodox and Hicksite groups—the latter having just built a complex of buildings on Rutherford Place and 15th Street.  “It seems,” the Times reported, “that for the past five years or so, four-man committees from each of the meeting houses have held a series of sessions with a thought to reunion.

The Friends Meetings House at 15 Rutherford Place.

In 1958, the Quakers moved out of 28 Gramercy Park South. Not long after, the newly created Landmarks Preservation Commission rushed to designate the structure. Unfortunately, landmark status in 1965 did not actually guarantee its preservation as a house of worship. Geoffrey Platt, chairman of the commission, used the meeting house to push for the passage of stronger preservation laws. “The loss of this handsome, unique building,” he said, “is an example of the necessity for the landmarks legislation now pending.

During this time, the Ninth Church of Christ was using the building for regular church services. In 1964, the 106-year old building had been sold to a developer for $500,000, who intended to turn the building into apartments. Following public outcry at the impending loss of the meeting house, it was purchased from the developer by a foundation hoping to convert it to a performing arts center. This venture failed. It was then sold to the United Federation of Teachers, which intended to use it for offices and meeting space. This, too, failed.

June 15th, 1975 New York Times Article announcing the Brotherhood Synagogue had purchased 28 Gramercy Park South.

Then, in 1974 Rabbi Block, after a schism split his own congregation, came upon 28 Gramercy Park South. The deal to purchase the building was not finalized until 1975, but progress quickly took hold. Architect James Stewart Polshek — then Dean of Columbia University Graduate School of Architecture, Planning and Preservation — took notice of the sale and was so impressed by the space that he offered his design services pro bono in order to renovate and reconstruct the building as a synagogue.

The interior of the Brotherhood Synagogue.

The sanctuary preserves much of its design roots and heritage, sticking to Rabbi Block’s mission to achieve religious brotherhood among his community. The pews are all original – with some over 150 years old – having been brought over from the original Quaker meeting house on Orchard Street. Above the ark is the original Quaker “sounding board” for sound enhancement — a typical architectural feature of a Friends Meeting House.

Almost 60 years later, the Brotherhood still occupies 28 Gramercy Park South, the culmination of some 200 years of history that saw the Quaker, the Presbyterian, and the Jewish faiths all seeking a place to call home.

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