Out of the Ashes, a Rebuilt Synagogue With a Basketball Court on Top

June 3, 2015
Anyone else might be able to enter the rebuilt synagogue of Congregation Kehilath Jeshurun at 125 East 85th Street later this summer, take a quick look around and think: "It's just like it used to be, only spruced up a bit."

Members of the Manhattan congregation, however, will be under no such illusion. They could not possibly forget the four-alarm fire that ravaged the building on July 11, 2011.

"I can't say it was the saddest day of my life," said Rabbi Haskel Lookstein, 83, a leader of the Orthodox congregation since 1958. "But it was the most frightening day of my life. It was very frightening to see 110 years of structural history almost burned to the ground, were it not for the luck that we were renovating and had scaffolding."

What saved the sanctuary from complete destruction when the roof collapsed was a dense network of pipe scaffolding that had been erected a week earlier for a renovation project. Standing on newly reinforced wood floor joists, the scaffolding proved robust enough to prevent the interior from simply crumpling in on itself.

The Torah scrolls were safe, having already been removed from the ark in preparation for the renovation. The ark itself was damaged, but not irreparably. Much stained glass survived, too. Other than that, the congregation was left with a charred shell.

"There was some discussion about tearing it down," Steven R. Gross, a lawyer who has been among the lay leaders of the renovation, restoration and expansion project. The total construction cost is expected to be $37 million to $40 million.

Even talking about razing the synagogue seemed like apostasy, certainly nothing that could be broached with Rabbi Lookstein. After all, he represents family leadership at Kehilath Jeshurun going back to 1906, through his father, Rabbi Joseph H. Lookstein, and his great-grandfather Rabbi Moses Z. Margolies. (Rabbi Margolies's first three initials, R.M.Z., form the root of the name of the synagogue's school, Ramaz.)

Rabbi Lookstein, a proponent of Modern Orthodoxy who can also sink a credible two-handed set shot, was more malleable than expected. "He said, ‘Tear it down,' " Mr. Gross recalled. " ‘If we can get the congregants back quicker and easier, tear it down.' "

But the congregation's architects, Ann Rolland and Timothy Macy of FXFowle, believed that a way could be found to preserve the original volume of the sanctuary while expanding the abutting Ramaz School — not only with a few classrooms but also with a 2,100-square-foot gymnasium, directly over the sanctuary.

To hold up the three-story rooftop addition without running any new columns through the sanctuary, FXFowle and DeSimone Consulting Engineers devised a support system that is almost entirely invisible.

Around the perimeter of the sanctuary, seven concrete buttresses (called shear walls) were poured. These serve as a kind of foundation, 85 feet in the air, on which the steel framework of the Ramaz addition sits. Though 20 inches thick, the shear walls were placed around and among window openings, so one is not aware of them.

But the rooftop addition needed more support than just around the perimeter. So the architects took advantage of an existing feature: six wrought-iron columns framing the women's balcony, which wrapped around three sides of the sanctuary.

These were replaced with taller and stronger steel columns, hidden behind scagliola — a composite plaster that mimics richly veined marble — and Empire-style column capitals, cast in glass-reinforced gypsum using molds from the originals.

Though the ark survived, it needed major surgery. Isaac Ainetchi of the Amian Group, which specializes in wall and surface treatments, said the ark had been disassembled into about 200 pieces; refurbished at Amian's shop in Greenpoint, Brooklyn; rebuilt in the synagogue on a steel framework; and refaced in scagliola, delectably reminiscent of a Gorgonzola, Stilton or Danish blue cheese.

More noticeable changes involved the widening of the women's balcony by two and a half feet on either side, to conform with building codes for aisle widths and to improve the seating angle. The overall volume feels a bit narrower now.

It shouldn't be any noisier, though, even with a gym overhead. For one thing, there is an intervening classroom floor and mechanical zone. For another, the playing floor in the gymnasium is about four inches above the concrete floor.

Not that anyone would object when Rabbi Lookstein takes to the basketball court, as he did the other day while touring the new building. The tour then took him to the rooftop, where there was a lot of equipment installed.

"This is all exposed," the rabbi said, not sounding too happy about it.

"It's supposed to be," Mr. Gross assured him.

"Who'll take the snow off?" Rabbi Lookstein asked.

Mr. Macy, the architect, stepped in: "It'll probably be me, Rabbi. It'll probably be me."

The New York Times
By David W. Dunlap
Image courtesy of FXFowle