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How Building A Spiritual Home Differs


This article beautifully explains the options synagogues, churches and other houses of worship have in this real estate market. An example of a missed opportunity in a similar situation existed on 37th Street and 6th Avenue when the Millinery Synagogue was unable to work out a redevelopment agreement with the Gross family who redeveloped the entire block on 6th Avenue between 37th and 38th Streets. – Ed Klein


Construction of a brand-new synagogue illustrates special challenges

By Kate Pickert
November 2007


While it's quiet inside the lobby of the Lincoln Square Synagogue, step outside the round white building, and the sound of construction on the congregation's new home a block away is deafening. However, to synagogue president Ruvan Cohen, "the jackhammers are holy music." It's the sound of the first major synagogue being built in Manhattan in decades.

Faced with a growing 700-family congregation at its location at 200 Amsterdam Avenue near 70th Street, the Modern Orthodox synagogue began exploring ways to expand several years ago. It considered expanding on its current lot, but ended up striking a land-swap deal with a nearby property owner in order to build a brand-new facility.

Then came the architectural challenge. Designing religious buildings has almost nothing in common with the process of designing residential or commercial structures, which are typically cubical spaces set in relatively uniform layouts.

"It's a completely different way of thinking," said architect Alexander Gorlin, who has designed and planned renovations of synagogues and churches in Manhattan, Westchester and New Jersey. "It's making a larger space where people can feel a sense of personal identity and a shared sense of something beyond themselves. Religious buildings are about something larger than the self; luxury apartments are about the inflation of the self."

From another perspective, buildings for religious institutions, be they synagogues or churches, are akin to concert halls or theaters. They require special assembly permits and must be designed to accommodate "traffic issues" raised by large crowds; they need proper entrances, exits, restrooms -- and, if the buildings are in suburban areas-- zoning variances for parking. They must be wheelchair-accessible for disabled congregants, yet have space near the sanctuary to take a baby who starts crying during services.

Finding consensus

Another challenging aspect of designing a religious building is that the architect is trying to please not just one developer or homeowner, but a board of congregants who may have opposing views about how modern or traditional the structure should be.

"You're dealing often with committees of up to 20 people," said Gorlin. "And they all are experts in everything. They might be developers, builders or architects, even. It's a potentially deadly mix of people for an architect. The building of consensus is very different."

Paul Jendrzejcyk, Jones Lang LaSalle's project manager for construction under way at the First Presbyterian Church in Greenwich, Conn., says dealing with so many people can be difficult.

"There's a great deal of emotion. You have a congregation of over 200 families, pledging money and gifts, so there's a lot of pressure riding on the co-chairs of the project," he said. "It was much more of a hand-holding process versus dealing with someone on the corporate side."

In Greenwich, Jendrzejcyk oversaw the installation of a new steeple, as well as light renovations inside the church and a new 50,000-square-foot administrative building. The cost for the entire project was around $20 million. Another challenge was relocating services for the summer while construction was under way. Services were held outdoors on a nearby plot of land owned by the church.

Lincoln Square Synagogue saw proposals from four different architects before settling on Cetra/Ruddy with lead architect John Cetra. Cetra, who is not Jewish, attended many services at the synagogue to understand the flow of people and needs of the congregation. "This shul [synagogue] is really an extension of their home and community," he said. "People call these religious structures 'houses of worship.' [Designing the synagogue] was more like designing a house than an apartment or commercial building. You're dealing with people's spiritual shelter."

Unlike the design of a Christian church -- which is fairly consistent in schematic details like altar placement -- there were few rules Cetra/Ruddy had to follow in their design. Said Cetra, "In Judaism, there was only one real temple [the now-destroyed Temple in Jerusalem]. Jewish guidelines say you shouldn't copy it. I went to Amsterdam and Rome and looked at shuls around the world; I saw that there were no hard-and-fast rules on how to do this. It was pretty incredible."

The one dictate Cetra was given was that the front of the sanctuary, according to Jewish law, must be on the east side, facing Jerusalem.

Design specifics

The relatively few limitations placed on Cetra/Ruddy for the new Lincoln Square Synagogue gave the firm freedom to design what is a strikingly modern structure that will stand out from its high-rise surroundings on the Upper West Side and continue the modernist architectural tradition of the present synagogue, built in the 1970s. Renderings of the new design show a low-rise building fronted by five undulating windows bordered by massive stone panels. The windows are meant to represent the five books of the Torah; the stone pillars feature a pattern resembling a Jewish prayer shawl.

One unique feature of the current synagogue, which will also transfer to the new building, is the mehitzah, the partition that separates the genders in the sanctuaries of Orthodox congregations. In contrast to more traditional dividers made of opaque material, which completely obstruct sight lines between the men's and women's seating areas, the current mehitzah at Lincoln Square is made of glass. In the new space, Cetra is designing a mehitzah that will also be somewhat transparent to reflect the modern inclinations of the congregation. "It's a symbolic separation," said Cetra.

Lincoln Square Synagogue's construction of an entirely new building is unusual. In the New York area, development by religious institutions typically involves building, selling or leasing property for other uses in order to sustain their congregations. Just a few blocks north of Lincoln Square, Congregation Shearith Israel has asked the city for a variance to build luxury condominiums on top of its community house, for example.

The city doesn't keep an inventory of religious buildings in New York, nor does it keep track of the specific number of building permits issued for new religious structures. But over the years, as the residential real estate market has reached peak after peak, there have been some notable closures of churches and synagogues. Just last year, the First Roumanian-American Congregation synagogue on the Lower East Side was demolished after its roof collapsed and the congregation could not produce the funds to save it. It has not been rebuilt.

In 2005, Gospel Temple Church in Harlem relocated to the Bronx after it sold its building, which was converted into 22 high-priced condominiums.

Luckily for the Lincoln Square Synagogue, developer American Continental Properties had been eyeing the institution's current corner site and its air rights, and traded the land where the new synagogue will be built for the old site, where the synagogue will be demolished to make room for a new high-rise residential development. (The site of the new synagogue formerly housed mostly retail stores.) As part of the deal, the developer also paid for a substantial portion of the new building's construction costs, which Cohen said are "in excess of $20 million."

In early 2009, the Lincoln Square Synagogue will relocate to the brand-new stand-alone structure.

The deal was fortuitous because the congregation was fast running out of room for its educational and programming needs even beyond services in the sanctuary. While the new building will have a seating capacity comparable to the current one, the new oval-shaped sanctuary will be able to more comfortably accommodate services. In addition, the new building will have rooms for youth group activities, day care, and a dance-floor-equipped catering hall that can seat 450 people.

The entire structure, at five stories, will be much lower than the high-rise residential buildings in the surrounding neighborhood. "Manhattan is basically all high-rise buildings, and there's a reason all the religious institutions, by and large, are 80 or 100 years old," said Moshe Sukenik, executive vice president of Newmark Knight Frank, the firm the synagogue hired to broker the deal. Typically, Sukenik said, "You can't justify economics unless you build vertically. Zoning laws permit building higher buildings, so who in their right mind would build a four-story building?" he asked rhetorically -- that is, unless the builder had a non-commercial purpose, like Lincoln Square Synagogue.

"The receptivity to the design was extraordinary. Our community [inside the synagogue] and our neighboring broader community is a sophisticated community. They are a group of people who are informed and excited by architecture," said Cohen, the synagogue president. "Are there always some people who yearn for a traditional Moorish synagogue? Yes, there are. But it was overwhelming, the receptivity to it. Everyone knew we couldn't continue as it was."

Copyright © 2003-2005 The Real Deal


By: Brian J. Markowitz
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By: Brian J. Markowitz
More Info

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