Leap of Faith
After a fire, New York's Central Synagogue is improved—not just restored—by Hardy Holzman Pfeiffer Associates
Fred A. Bernstein -- Interior Design, 5/1/2002 12:00:00 AM
During a Holocaust memorial service at New York's Central Synagogue, the focus is on devastation and renewal. But none of the evening's speakers evokes those themes as eloquently as the synagogue itself. The 1872 marvel, nearly destroyed by fire in 1998, was recently rededicated after an elaborate renovation. When Rabbi Peter J. Rubinstein, who worked with Hardy Holzman Pfeiffer Associates on the project, tells the congregation, "Let us open our hearts to beauty," beauty is all around. As one congregant after another explains during a post-service gathering, the building is far more striking now than before the fire, when years of wear had compromised the Victorian-Moorish decoration.
"It was a leap of faith to hire us," says Hugh Hardy, principal at HHPA. This was his first synagogue project, and only his second house of worship. Hardy had, however, overseen renovations of the Los Angeles Central Library and Manhattan's ornate New Victory Theater. "I guess we proved we could handle complex decoration," Hardy says. For Central Synagogue, he reassembled the HHPA team that had renovated Radio City Music Hall: project manager Jonathan Schloss, project architect Nina Freedman, and project interior designer Caroline Bertrand.
"I'd never worked on a building where there was so much devastation," says Schloss (who was married there soon after the renovation was completed). The fire, started by a welder's blowtorch, left little standing besides sandstone walls and cast-iron columns. Stained-glass windows, elaborately painted plaster, complicated millwork—all were ruined by the one-two punch of fire and water.
Before the work began, a restoration consultant analyzed bits of debris, including paint chips and slivers of glass. Archives were studied, congregants interviewed. To determine the pattern of red and black slate roof shingles, World War II surveillance photos of Manhattan were examined. But for all the research, HHPA didn't rebuild the synagogue exactly as designed by Henry Fernbach, its Prussian Jewish architect. Central, Schloss observes, had been "basically a one-room building," lacking the classrooms, offices, and social spaces common to modern synagogues. By excavating under the sanctuary, HHPA converted a basement classroom into a social hall. Other improvements included turning an alleyway into a glass-roofed atrium and lowering the front doors by 14 inches to make the stairs less steep.
Even in Fernbach's precious sanctuary, changes were made. From the high bema (platform), rabbis had always towered above the congregation, seated in rows of fixed pews. HHPA reconstructed the bema, which now lowers and slides toward the congregation, and installed movable pews. To permit Webcasts of services, cameras, microphones, and speakers were concealed in balcony fasciae. Sophisticated up-lights were hidden in the new bronze chandeliers. "The trick is to make it look like the old fixtures are doing all the work," says Schloss.
HHPA took special care when re-creating Fernbach's interior decoration: Virtually every surface had been covered with elaborate Moorish patterns. With lighting levels vastly increased, the old colors would have seemed garish, so the HHPA team turned to elaborate mock-ups—involving direct and indirect lighting and nearly 70 paint colors—to come up with a suitable palette. To create texture on the walls, the firm had Mylar stencils cut by hand to give them rough edges, and paint was applied unevenly. "I didn't want wallpaper," says Hardy. "I was thinking more of the flowing fabric of a tent." Whenever possible, old tile and woodwork were incorporated. The ark, a 38-foot-high cabinet for the scriptures, was restored—but gently. Its age, Hardy explains, "gives it authority." On the deep-blue sanctuary ceiling, Hardy had clusters of eight-pointed stars painted. The stars' random positioning is surprising, as everything in Fernbach's original ornamentation was rigidly geometric. But Hardy defends his decision. "Inside this highly ordered universe," he says, "there's a glimpse of the infinite."