Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Meet the Neighbors: Angel Orensanz Center

In 1986, Angel Orensanz, a world-renowned artist, took a night-time stroll through the Lower East Side with one goal in mind: finding the perfect space for a sculpture studio. What he found was a dilapidated building at 172 Norfolk Street in desperate need of repairs.

After evicting the pigeons, clearing the snow, securing the floors and adding electricity, Orensanz opened the space in the late spring. Since that day, more than 1 million people have visited the Angel Oresanz Center—to hear concerts, attend services, see exhibitions, participate in weddings, bar and bat mitzvahs and all kinds of lectures, community events and holidays. But its popularity is not the only reason why we think the Angel Orensanz Center is a great neighbor.

Exterior of Angel Orensanz Center. Photo courtesy Angel Orensanz Foundation.

Like most of the structures on the Lower East Side, the Center has a rich history. Built in 1849, a group of German Jews known as Anshe Chesed (The People of Living Kindness) hired German architect Alexander Saeltzer to build what would be the first synagogue in the U.S. to embody the tenets of Reform Judaism: the pulpit facing the congregation; the prominent use of organ and other instrumental music; and the use of German. Much like other buildings in Berlin, the ceilings were deep blue with gold stars. A balcony surrounded the main space and two spires rose dramatically in the front.

However, from the 1880s to the end of World War One, the synagogue suffered—it was passed from congregation to congregation, and was closed for much of the time. The gold stars went missing and the German splendor faded away. Orthodox congregations moved the pulpit to face East, women were relegated to the balcony, and the organ was removed (it is now at a summer camp in upstate New York). The spires at the front were removed and services returned to the traditional length, with Hebrew as the only spoken language.

In the years during and after World War Two, the neighborhood changed and many members of the Jewish community began to leave the Lower East Side, resulting in the closure of synagogues across the City. The synagogue on Norfolk Street closed in 1974. The City boarded up the windows and cinderblocked the doors, but that did not stop the building from being vandalized—gates were stolen; books, Torahs, pews, and the grand chandelier in the center space were broken or destroyed. At one point in the 1980s, the City of New York intended to demolish the building, erasing its heritage in the community.

Norfolk Street Synagogue, circa 1975. Photo courtesy Angel Orensanz Foundation.

But on that February day in 1986, Angel Orensanz had bigger plans for the space. Now home to the Angel Orensanz Foundation, the building has event and exhibition space, a free museum, which houses the permanent collection of Angel Orensanz’s work, as well as a large archive which is open to the public. The space now serves as an artistic and cultural resource open to artists, writers, thinkers and leaders from across the globe, and to the community.

Angel Orensanz Center. Photo courtesy Angel Orensanz Foundation.
--Posted by Kathryn Barnard


  1. I love the work of restoration that you do and point to. It is a sad commentary on the blindness of contemporary architecture and culture that jewels like this one are casually destroyed in order to throw up ugly glass and cement towers. Thank you for this story and for the work you do at the Tenement Museum.

  2. I love this space and went to a beautiful wedding there. However, I resent the tone and implication that returning to traditional Judaism was part of the downfall of the synagogue. Facing East during prayer is traditional in Judaism, as are the separation of men and women during prayer, not using musical instruments on the Sabbath, and praying in Hebrew.

    It's perfectly acceptable in my mind to be Reform, Conservative, Orthodox or any other stripe (I don't really consider myself as belonging to any denomination), so to say that the synagogue becoming Orthodox is part of the time when it "suffered," is an unfortunate choice. I wonder if any other religion's house of worship returning to traditional practice, including using its ancient language, would be seen in a negative light.

  3. The Lower East Side Tenement MuseumAugust 3, 2011 at 10:27 AM

    Becca, thanks so much for your thoughtful comment. Any negative connotations were unintended. Our apologies.

  4. Wow that was amazing, I really enjoyed reading this article. I look forward to reading more and of course learning more from you.


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