A Walking Tour of the Lower East Side
Many of the Lower East Side’s most notable buildings commemorate its past as a destination for waves upon waves of refugees. Numerous others, though, represent its vibrant present and look ahead to its future, as the walking tour below makes clear.
235 Bowery (between Rivington and Stanton Streets)
It is only fitting that a museum dedicated to thought-provoking contemporary art would be housed in a thought-provoking structure. Erected in 2007, 30 years after the museum was founded (as the New Museum of Contemporary Art), the seven-story building resembles an irregular stack of boxes that, were they not bound together by aluminum mesh cladding, could seemingly tumble over with a flick of a giant finger. Tokyo-based architects Kzuyo Sejima and Ryue Nishizawa of Pritzker Prize-winning firm SANAA opted for this design, in which each story has different dimensions, to provide maximum flexibility for mounting exhibitions and hosting events.
12 Eldridge Street (between Division and Canal Streets)
Designated a National Historic Landmark in 1996, the Eldridge Street Synagogue is now a museum. But when it was completed in 1887, it was one of the country’s first temples built for Ashkenazi Jews—those from Eastern Europe. Yet the dramatic Moorish architecture, with its horseshoe arches and domes, might seem more appropriate for a Sephardic congregation, one made up of Jews from Spain, Portugal, and North Africa. During the second half of the 19th century, however, numerous synagogues adopted Moorish Revival style as a way of distinguishing themselves from churches and embracing the religion’s Middle Eastern roots. As dazzling as its exterior is, with its multiple Stars of David carved into the doors and around the stained-glass rose window, its interior is even more stunning. A 20-year renovation project restored the elaborate vaults, hand-painted ceilings, trompe l’oeil marbling and wood graining, and stained-glass windows. In 2010, three years after the restoration was completed, the synagogue gained a new stained-glass window. Designed by artist Kiki Smith and architect Deborah Gans, the 16-foot window is a celestial design made up of 1,200 pieces of glass that symbolizes the past and the future of American Jewry. Designated a National Historic Landmark in 1996, the synagogue is today a museum.
Jarmulowsky Bank Building
Nine Orchard Street (at Canal Street)
Sender Jarmulowsky, the first president of the Eldridge Street Synagogue, was a banker whose business catered to Jewish immigrants by staying open on Sundays, rather than Saturdays, and hiring staff who spoke Yiddish. By 1911 his business was successful enough that he commissioned the construction of this 12-story Beaux-Arts building. Boasting a terracotta-and-limestone facade, columns, arched windows, and above the entry a bas-relief depicting Hermes, the Greek god of finance, the structure is attention-grabbing from street level. Even more impressive, though, is its 50-foot copper dome and the 2,200-pound copper lantern capping the building. Not part of the original design, they was reportedly added so that the building could be taller than that of the Yiddish newspaper the “Forward” just down the street and claim the title of the Lower East Side’s tallest structure. The grand opening was held in May 1912; Jarmulowsky died just three weeks later, and in 1914 the bank closed. After decades as an office building, the structure is getting ready to reopen as a boutique hotel. In fact, a gleaming refurbished lantern was just hoisted on top of its dome in August 2019.
280 Broome Street (between Allen and Eldridge Streets)
Dating back to Greece during the time of Alexander the Great, Romaniotes are one of the oldest Jewish communities, with traditions that differentiate them from the dominant Ashkenazi and Sephardic communities. Kehila Kedosha Janina is the only Romaniote synagogue in the Western Hemisphere and one of only a handful left worldwide. Unlike the nearby Eldridge Street Synagogue, it still holds weekly services, though its congregation now includes Sephardic as well as Romaniote Jews. The modest two-story brick building was completed in 1927. Like other synagogues of its time, it includes Moorish features, particularly the arches above the second-story windows and doorway. In addition to still serving as a temple. Kehila Kedosha Janina is a museum that includes Romaniote artifacts and a memorial to the Greek Jews killed in the Holocaust.
172 Norfolk Street (between Stanton and East Houston Streets)
Built in 1849, the home of the Angel Orensanz Foundation for the Arts is the city’s oldest surviving synagogue building and the fourth oldest such building in the country. Its Gothic Revival exterior only hints at the lavishness of its interior, which was modeled after that of the Notre-Dame de Paris; its sanctuary took inspiration from the Sistine Chapel. Like numerous other LES temples, it fell into disuse by the 1970s. Spanish artist Angel Orensanz acquired the building in 1986, restoring its grandeur and converting it into a gallery, performance venue, and event space.
Hotel on Rivington
107 Rivington Street (between Essex and Ludlow Streets)
When it opened in 2005, predating New Museum by two years, Hotel on Rivington was a glossy symbol of the Lower East Side’s willingness to embrace the new. The 22-story structure boasts floor-to-ceiling glass windows, some of which are tinted or opaque to give the facade a Mondrian effect that is reinforced by its stepped silhouette.
7-11 Willett Street (between Grand and Delancey Streets)
If the Bialystoker Synagogue looks more like a church than a temple, that is because it originally was a church. The fieldstone building was constructed in 1826 as the Willett Street Methodist Episcopal Church. It was believed to have been a stop on the Underground Railroad, with its attic used to hide slaves. The Bialystoker congregation, so named because most of them came from the Polish city of Bialystok, purchased the building in 1905. Today it is the oldest building in the city still used as a synagogue and remains home to an Orthodox congregation. The temple has had at least one (infamous) congregant: A memorial plaque to mobster Benjamin, aka Bugsy, Siegel is on the wall among with those of other deceased synagogue members.
105 Norfolk Street (between Delancey and Rivington Streets)
Blue Condominium is just that: a 16-story condo building clad in vivid blue. The blue exterior panels and curtain walls are not its only distinguishing feature. Equally notable is its highly irregular silhouette, designed in part to accommodate zoning requirements. As a result the building appears almost to tilt from some angles. Though today Blue Condominium is considered a landmark of the Lower East Side, a dozen years ago it was viewed with suspicion, if not outright hostility, for taking the place of another neighborhood landmark, the century-old kosher dairy restaurant Ratner’s.