It's taken 24 years and $18.5 million, but this weekend the Museum at Eldridge Street will unveil the conclusion of its restoration of the Eldridge Street Synagogue: a central stained-glass window co-designed by artist Kiki Smith and architect Deborah Gans.
Measuring 16 feet in diameter, the window is the only 21st-century element in the 1887 synagogue, which was renamed the Museum at Eldridge street in 2008, though it still supports a small congregation. The museum has focused on the wave of Jewish immigration to the Lower East Side since re-opening the renovated building in 2007.
..At the center of the circular window is a Star of David, out of which bursts a spiral shape and a spray of five-pointed yellow stars against panels of greenish blue. The artists' use of the six-pointed star (a symbol of faith) and the five-pointed stars (referring to stars on the American flag) was intended to emphasize the dual traditions inherent in immigration—the synagogue was the first to be built by Eastern European Jews in America. "It makes a statement. We are here. We are citizens," said Ms. Smith, who has several stars tattooed on her wrist an arm.
The combination is doubly important in that the Eldridge Street Synagogue is a National Historic Landmark, a designation it received in 1996. The Moorish-revival structure has an elaborate interior, which made the creation of a contemporary stained-glass window an artistic challenge.
"It had to integrate well into what exists here already," said Ms. Smith, who was commissioned to create the window in November 2009. "There is a lot of aesthetic information here."
The artist, who has been represented by The Pace Gallery since 1994, has worked extensively in glass, as well as heavier materials such as bronze and steel. There are no human figures or allegories represented in this window, but often she has created figures and themes that would be a stretch for a house of worship. That said, the spiritual aspect of her previous work connected directly to the window's design.
"She has worked with celestial themes in the past," said the senior vice-president of Pace, Susan Dunne. "She has used stars in sculpture and drawings. It is right out of her vernacular."
Ms. Gans, the principal of Gans Studio, an architecture and design firm, has exhibited internationally and executed work for private commissions. At the time that Ms. Smith was considering a proposal for the window, she had recently hired Ms. Gans to design a portion of her new New York home. "I was reluctant to take it a first," she said. "Then Deborah walked in, and I asked her if she wanted to collaborate."
Ms. Gans designed the window's spiral motif, which is rendered in a steel frame weighing 4,400 pounds. Inside each of the spiral's open spaces are large panels onto which two layers of colored glass have been applied and laminated with silicon (instead of the lead that typically holds pieces of glass together).
"What would have been lines of lead are lines of light," said Ms. Gans, adding that the celestial scene reflects a circular dome shape. "It's a dome, turned on its side."
The design of the original window is unknown, but other windows and decorative elements in the synagogue are ornate and colorful. "This was built by immigrants from Eastern Europe at a time when they could not worship openly back home," said the museum's deputy director, Amy Milford.
By the 1920s, the Jewish community had begun to move out of the Lower East Side, and during the 1950s, the small congregation could not keep up with the cost of repairs. The opulent sanctuary was sealed off, and worship was conducted in a lower level for decades. In 1986, the nonprofit, nonsectarian Eldridge Street Project was founded by preservationist Roberta Brandes Gratz and attorney William Josephson with the aim of restoring the building. While their goal has been achieved, not every corner of the structure is perfectly polished. "We wanted to emphasize that part of the history is decline," Ms. Milford said.
One portion of a crumbling second-story wall has been left exposed and unrepaired. And in the lower level, the glass blocks that once filled the central window—which is now glowing with Ms. Smith and Ms. Gans's ethereal design—have been preserved in the form of a wall.
The window can be viewed for free on Sunday from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. A series of daily art and architecture tours will begin on Monday, and Ms. Smith and Ms. Gans will return to the museum for a public discussion on Nov. 17.