Eldridge Street Landmark Snags Kiki Smith

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First things first: if you live in New York and want to impress out-of-town visitors, wander on down to a grimy stretch of Eldridge Street below Canal and ogle the neo-Gothic synagogue on the east side of the street. Said to be the first house of worship built by Eastern European Jews in the United States, the Eldridge Street Synagogue is a primer in Lower East Side social history as well as a architecture buff’s wet dream: a completely restored neo-Moorish interior with 70-foot vaulted ceilings, trompe l’oeil walls, stenciled detail work, a central chandelier with 75 bulbs, and 68 stained glass windows. And now, boundary-pushing contemporary artist Kiki Smith.

The synagogue, circa 1887, fell into disuse after its late 19th century heyday and the remaining congregation was forced to seal off the main sanctuary in the mid-1950s. After a 20-year, $20 million restoration project, the landmark building reopened in 2007 as the Museum at Eldridge Street.

Kiki Smith, along with architect Deborah Gans, was tapped for a new iteration of a rear tablet window, currently outfitted with cheap 1940s-era glass blocks, that is slated for late spring 2010. While the design has yet to be released, Ms. Smith said “it would feature the Star of David at the center ‘in a field of blue five-pointed stars.'” We’re hoping it looks a little something like this:

“Constellation” (1996), glass, bronze, and blue Nepal paper. Image courtesy of MASS MoCA.

Smith is often recognized for her feminist-slanted body art with allusions of philosophy, social and gender parity, and spirituality (often of the Catholic persuasion). In an interview with Art:21, Smith speaks to why religion and art are so intrinsically similar: Both believe in the physical manifestation of the spiritual world, that it’s through the physical world that you have spiritual life, that you have to be here physically in a body. And art is in a sense like a proof: it’s something that moves from your insides into the physical world, and at the same time it’s just a representation of your insides. It doesn’t rob you of your insides and it’s always different, but in a different form from your spirit.

However, the Foundation’s choice of a provocative, female, German artist like Smith highlights the fact that the present Eldridge Street Synagogue is an almost entirely secular presence on the landscape of the Lower East Side.

The sanctuary of the Eldridge Street Synagogue; the Smith and Gans collaboration will replace the glass block windows on the rear wall.

For more fun facts, scan Edward Rothstein’s New York Times 2007 article on the restoration process.