Pigeons roosted near the 70-foot ceiling, the stained-glass windows were broken and the pews were thickly layered with dust.
“It was a wreck,” said Roberta Brandes Gratz of the Eldridge Street Synagogue when she saw it in 1982. “I walked in and said, ‘If we don’t save it, we’d have to reinvent it.’”
A journalist at the time, Gratz went on to found the Museum at Eldridge Street and buttonhole donors to restore the 19th- century Moorish-revival temple on Manhattan’s Lower East Side.
“You can’t tell the history of American Jews without this building and everything it represents,” Gratz said in an interview.
Almost three decades and $20 million later, the Eldridge Street Synagogue is gloriously complete. Light pours in through the ornate windows, leaving colorful reflections on smooth, wooden benches and windowsills. The final element of the restoration -- a round stained-glass window designed by artist Kiki Smith and architect Deborah Gans -- was unveiled last week.
The window’s design reflects the celestial motif on the synagogue’s eastern wall and the temple’s domes. Curved spokes radiate from the six points of a Star of David at the center of a blue-green field covered by smaller yellow and gold five-point stars.
“To me it was a complete no-brainer to continue with the stars and have the center of the belief system in the middle,” said Smith. She made a swooping gesture with her hands, which themselves are tattooed with five- and six-point stars.
Between 1880 and 1924, more than two million East European Jews moved to New York and 75 percent of them settled on the Lower East Side. The Eldridge Street Synagogue opened in 1887, designed by two German Catholic brothers, Peter and Francis Herter. Members of the original congregation hailed from Russia, Poland, Lithuania and Ukraine.
“They lived in cramped tenements, worked in sweatshops and maneuvered through filthy streets,” said Gratz. “This place was a refuge where they felt worthy.”
Raising money for the restoration wasn’t always easy.
“The most common reaction was, ‘What do you want to save an old synagogue in Chinatown for?’” Gratz said. “One person said, ‘I spent my life getting out of the Lower East Side and you want me to come back?’”
Over the years, about 20,000 people from around the country contributed. Brooke Astor was the first big donor, giving $75,000 for the restoration of another round stained-glass window. Others included Jeffrey R. Gural, chairman of real- estate advisers Newmark Knight Frank and DreamWorks SKG co- founder David Geffen. Later gifts came from newspaper publisher Mortimer Zuckerman, art collector Ronald Lauder and cosmetics magnate Ronald Perelman.
“We had no million-dollar grants,” said Gratz. “It really did take a village.”