NEW YORK (Nov. 4)
Spring of 1987 is the target date for the opening of the museum and memorial to the Holocaust to be housed in the unused 77-year-old United States Customs Building in lower Manhattan, according to David Blumenfeld, the executive director of the New York City Holocaust Commission.
Blumenfeld cautioned, however, that the projected date remains tentative because the federal government will be renovating the exterior of the structure, constructed in 1907. The museum and memorial center will use the lower two floors and the basement, while the top five floors will be leased by the General Services Administration (GSA), which owns the building.
The GSA regional administrator, William Diamond, announced last month that the government decided in favor of leasing the building to the Holocaust Commission which was vying for the Beaux-Arts landmark with a consortium of arts organizations that wanted to use the building as a cultural center.
The announcement by Diamond, however, caused some confusion as to the themes the museum will emphasize. Blumenfeld asserted that Diamond was misinformed when he asserted that the museum, in addition to focusing on the Holocaust, would include a history of Jews in the diaspora.
WILL FOCUS ON THREE THEMES
In an interview with the Jewish Telegraphic Agency, Blumenfeld emphasized that the museum will seek to focus on three interrelated themes: Jewish civilization in Europe, the Holocaust and its aftermath, and Jewish immigration to New York. Furthermore, the museum will contain research facilities, an auditorium for performances, and a chapel and meditation room.
The announcement by the GSA ended a six-month competition between the two groups — the Holocaust Commission and the arts consortium — for the building. Diamond said the Commission was selected because “its proposal was the strongest and the best deal for the government based upon the amount of money offered.”
Renovation and restoration efforts are expected to begin immediately on the seven-story structure. Possible tenants for the top five floors, about 160,000 square feet consisting of office space, include part of the National Archives or the Bankruptcy court. The museum will lease about 80,000 square feet.
The Commission will sign a 20-year renewable lease which has not yet been finalized. Monthly rent has not been determined. Some $5 million is expected to cover the renovation costs for the interior of the building with an additional $10 million projected to cover the costs of getting the museum ready for opening. Most of these funds will come from private sources and major gifts, Blumenfeld said. He said there will be regular fund-raising efforts in the future.
SPECIAL DELIVERY SYSTEMS
According to Blumenfeld, the museum will incorporate hands-on delivery systems such as video consoles, computer data banks and viewers to provide visitors with participatory learning experiences. The education center will house a comprehensive library for basic information and scholarly research.
A special archive will open for deposit of memorabilia, original and microfilm documents and personal collections, according to Blumenfeld, including written and oral testimony from Holocaust survivors in the New York area.
Special priorities will be planned for outreach efforts to encourage school visits to the museum, including classes from New York’s public, private and religious schools. There is expected to be outreach to synagogues, churches, and community centers to help them create courses on Jewish cultural life, Holocaust studies and modes of commemoration.
Additional outreach activities of the museum and memorial center will include, among other things, promoting scholarly research and the publication of new findings, publishing a journal, establishing a lecture bureau, and alerting the public to the dangers of neo-Nazi and anti-Semitic literature.
A ‘HAPPY ACCOMPLISHMENT’
George Klein, who serves as co-chairman of the Holocaust Commission, hailed the GSA decision, noting that “this happy accomplishment called for a great amount of faith, persistence and dedication on the part of many devoted people. We are grateful to all of them.” Manhattan District Attorney Robert Morgenthau serves with Klein as co-chairman.
Critics of the GSA decision suggested that the Customs building was too “lavish” and would thus take away from the solemnity of a museum commemorating the Holocaust. The building’s primary space is a huge rotunda near the entrance. There is also one statue of Queen Isabella of Spain who banished the nation’s Jews in 1492.
The statue of the Queen would fit right into the building, according to Blumenfeld, who said she was a person “who manifested anti-Semitic behavior.” He added: “The building itself is majestic; it smacks of tradition.”