The Light Fantastic


It is a marriage with a 123-year age difference.

The famed Eldridge Street Synagogue, built in 1887, unveiled its new stained-glass window last month, as the culmination of a 24-year restoration of the once-abandoned building on the Lower East Side.

Artist Kiki Smith and architect Deborah Gans were commissioned to create the circular glass mosaic, which consists of over 1,200 pieces of glass. No documentation remains of the original window, which was damaged over time and ultimately replaced in 1944 with clear glass blocks.

The design “needed to integrate well into what exists here already,” said Smith in a statement. “There is a lot of aesthetic information here.”

Built in the heyday of Jewish life on the Lower East Side, the synagogue — with its 70-foot-high vaulted ceiling — was home to thousands of worshippers on a regular basis. But the community began to disperse in the early 20th century, and by the 1950s the building had fallen into disrepair, without funds to fix damage, keep the sanctuary clean or even keep the heat on. But in 1986, the nonsectarian Eldridge Street Project was created, which started the synagogue on its long journey of restoration. It was reopened to the public in 2007 and renamed the Museum at Eldridge Street, offering tours and lectures on immigrant history.

Now the focus of the renovated sanctuary is the 16-foot window, a swirl of blue glass, sprinkled with hundreds of glittering stars, centered around a Star of David. The modern design in a historic setting incorporated new technology: Silicone instead of lead was used to stick the glass panels together — allowing for larger pieces and cracks of light instead of black lines.