©2016 The Brotherhood Synagogue 28 Gramercy Park South, New York, NY 10003 Main Tel: (212) 674-5750 Nursery School: (212) 995-9867
THEN & NOW
THEN & NOW
It is said that the walls of a building absorb the sounds and the silence within them. Our walls have listened carefully for over 150 years.
Our building is very special — its design and history reflect much of the personality and character of our congregation. From the outside, it is an architectural jewel with a distinctive presence on Gramercy Park. On the inside, its beauty and simplicity provides our membership and visitors with a warm, spiritual atmosphere in which to learn, to volunteer, to reflect, to pray, to socialize, and to celebrate.
Built in 1859, the Brotherhood Synagogue’s magnificent building was landmarked in 1965. It was originally designed as a Quaker Meeting House and served the 20th Street Friends for nearly 100 years. In 1958, the 20th Street Meeting merged with the 1860 Friends Meeting House, which still stands at 15th Street and Stuyvesant Square. Since 1974, this beautiful and historic building has been home to the Brotherhood Synagogue.
Design and Construction
In 1859, when an early Quaker group expanded beyond the capacity of its Meeting House 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 design, created with the help of members, was considered unusual since 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 Meeting house: entirely plain, neat and chaste; of good proportions but avoiding all useless ornament.”
When the Brotherhood Synagogue purchased the Landmark building in 1974, renowned architect James Stewart Polshek — then Dean of Columbia University Graduate School of Architecture, Planning and Preservation — took notice. He 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. His work was lauded by The New York Times architecture critic, Ada Louise Huxtable, for demonstrating “skillful recycling of an older structure for contemporary life.” Huxtable described the interior of the building as a place of, “classical, formal elegance and spare simplicity,” and “a superb space, just one foot short of square and two generous stories high, scaled by tall, clear windows.”
You can read the full New York Times article here.
We are very proud that, in addition to its architectural significance, our building also has historical significance. 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. The tunnel underneath our building that was used as an escape route for runaway slaves is still visible and accessible today.
The Beauty in the Details
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 include light brick and a Dorchester Olive stone facade facing Gramercy Park. The front, large, wooden, double-doorway has a curved pediment, which mirrors the larger pediment atop the building.
Inside the front doors, a pair of curving staircases with mahogany banisters leads to the sanctuary on the second floor. The sanctuary has a forty-foot high ceiling and consists of two stories — a main floor and balcony — which seat over 800 people. Iron columns provide support and twelve clear Georgian-style windows help create a light and airy atmosphere for prayer and reflection.
Since the building became our home in 1974, the Brotherhood Synagogue has also been committed to this basic design ideal, endeavoring to keep the building architecturally intact. All of the maintenance, renovations and improvements made by our Synagogue to the building and its property have always been undertaken in adherence to the simplicity of the original design.
The sanctuary preserves much of its design roots and heritage. The pews are all original – with some over 150 years old – having been brought over from the original meeting house on the Lower East Side. As in the fashion of the times, the pews on the sanctuary’s main floor were constructed with an open space in the back to accommodate the bustles of women’s skirts. Above our ark is the original Quaker “sounding board” for sound enhancement — a typical architectural feature of a Friends Meeting House. New features and improvements also borrow from original Meeting House motifs, including the stairs on either side of the ark and the wainscoting below the windows.