lighting and electrical

Eternal Light

Original Victorian-era lighting fixtures were restored and replicated for an historic synagogue in New York City.

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By Lynne Lavelle

As part of an 18-year, $20 million restoration at New York City’s Eldridge Street Synagogue, Aurora Lampworks restored the sanctuary’s lighting fixtures, and fabricated replicas including the eternal light and “crown and basket” wall sconces. Photo: Kate Miford

As they were in most major ports of entry in the 19th and early 20th centuries, New York City’s architectural and cultural maps were drawn by the immigration boom. More than 12 million people passed through the city’s immigration hub, Ellis Island, between 1892 and 1954. While some were destined for elsewhere – more than 40 percent of the U.S. population can trace its ancestry through the facility – a great many people of Irish, Italian, Eastern European and Asian origin went no further than the New York area, and formed communities that endure to this day.

More than 60,000 immigrant Jews, mainly from Eastern Europe, settled in New York City’s Lower East Side between 1880 and 1890; by 1910, the Jewish population had grown to approximately half a million, outnumbering Chicago, IL (100,000), and even Vienna, Austria (175,000). Around 60 synagogues served the Lower East Side at the close of the 19th century, acting also as makeshift mutual aid societies and social clubs. They were, for the most part, architecturally unremarkable. However, with its 70-ft.-high vaulted ceiling, stained-glass rose windows, elaborate lighting and hand-stenciled walls, the synagogue at 12 Eldridge Street (1887) symbolized the religious freedom and economic opportunity the new arrivals had come in search of.

Designed by Peter and Francis Herter, the Eldridge Street Synagogue was well attended until the mid-1920s, when membership and finances began to dwindle. Congregants drifted to other parts of the city and were not easily replenished as immigration quotas stemmed the flow of new arrivals. Those who remained were weakened by the Great Depression, so contributions fell. As a consequence, the main sanctuary gradually fell out of use and was cordoned off by the congregation in 1955 (it moved to a small chapel downstairs).

Most of the existing fixtures had suffered extensive corrosion caused by water damage (as shown here), and the by-products of gas combustion, which had turned the metals black and green. Photo: Aurora Lampworks

The sanctuary remained empty for the next 25 years and by the 1970s had fallen into severe disrepair. At this time a local group, Friends of the Eldridge Street Synagogue (a predecessor of the Eldridge Street Project), began to raise funds and seek landmark designation for its restoration. The effort led to the emergency stabilization of the exterior in 1984, but the interior damage – a collapsed internal staircase, old electrical wiring, extensive water damage, damaged artwork, lighting fixtures and woodwork – remained and was worsening by the day due to the failing historic slate roof.

In 1990, Jill H. Gotthelf (then of Robert E. Meadows PC Architects) drew up a restoration master plan to address these and other issues at Eldridge Street. It became the blueprint for an 18-year, $20 million restoration, which was completed in December 2007. The project progressed as funds became available but took off after 2000 when Walter Sedovic Architects (WSA) – where Gotthelf is an associate – became involved. Its work included the façade restoration, accessibility and MEP upgrades, the development of programming spaces for the history and interpretive center and the interior finishes restoration. As Gotthelf explains, the focus was on celebrating, not erasing, the synagogue’s past. “We developed an overarching philosophy of authenticity for the project,” she says. “From the ruts in the floor where the congregation shuffled during prayer, right down to the paintwork and the lighting, the patina of time was left in place wherever possible. We didn’t want to lose the story.”

The final phase of the restoration concerned the sanctuary’s Victorian-era light fixtures, many of which had almost disintegrated due to corrosion caused by the chemical by-products of the 247 gas jets. To make matters worse, many of the lights had also sustained water damage from leaks in the roof and skylight. Some, including the eternal light and “crown and basket” wall sconces had gone missing over the years. WSA worked with Aurora Lampworks, Inc. of Brooklyn, NY, which acted as consultant to develop detailed specifications for the restoration of the diverse and unique fixtures, including the 75-light “grand chandelier.”

After means, methods and samples had been approved by WSA, Aurora’s in-house team of blacksmiths, glassmakers, technicians, metal fabricators and finishers, decorative painters and conservators began the restoration process. Each and every fixture, its components, placement and story were considered relevant and highly valued. The ethos was clear: reuse existing parts wherever possible.

According to Dawn Ladd, principal of Aurora Lampworks, the company and the project were a good match. “Aurora’s core is about restoration, and the heart of restoration and conservation is reuse,” she says. “Additionally, the size and the scope of the project was a good fit for us. As we are a small company, every staff person got a sense of ownership for their part of the project and, consequently, for the project as a whole. Although other projects were still going on, the company was focused on Eldridge Street with a team spirit that would inevitably show up in the quality of the work.”

To replicate the remaining “crown and basket” fixture, Aurora used an old-world chasing and repousse process: a clay-like substance called “pitch” was used to make a mold, then artisans created the delicate piercings and embossed patterns by hand. Photos: Aurora Lampworks

The fragility of the fixtures posed a challenge, but Aurora’s artisans experimented with a number of cleaning methods to reveal the original materials without making the fixtures look brand new. Where metal was missing, the material was matched with similar vintage metal, soldered in, patinated, coated with a tinted lacquer and then waxed. “We didn’t want to remove the character along with the corrosion,” says Ladd. “Our work was another chapter in the synagogue’s story, not a revision. In fact, we left the arms on the grand chandelier upside down. We knew that they had faced up originally because they were gas burning, but they had been turned down when the building was electrified, presumably to better light the congregation. We decided not to reverse them.”

Only one of 18 original “crown and basket” sconces remained, so the project was expanded to include the replications needed. After exhausting all 21st-century techniques, the artisans found that there was no substitute for the Old World chasing and repousse process – the method by which the sconces had originally been made. To execute it, a metal spinning is made in the desired shape, into which a clay-like substance “pitch” – heated to a molten state – is poured (it looks much like pouring a batch of brownies). After several hours, the substance hardens, and the artisan gets to work on the piercing and embossing with specially made chisels and tools. “All of this is extremely labor intensive, yet rewarding for the artisan,” says Ladd.

Replicating the eternal light required some guesswork, as the original piece was missing. Fortunately, Aurora was able to determine its design and dimensions from old photographs. After WSA and the Eldridge Street Project had approved a mock-up, the griffin head was carved in clay then cast in bronze. In keeping with the ethos of reuse, and for symbolical and sentimental reasons, the basket from the only original “crown and basket” fixture was incorporated into the new eternal light.

Without compromising appearance or historic integrity, Aurora brought all of the lighting up to code; every fixture carries a UL label. Tiny flat junction boxes are hidden within each column fixture, thus eradicating the need for junction boxes within the columns themselves. New wires pass through old gas keys, preserving the original look and intent.

After much consideration, a clear 75-watt lamp was chosen for most fixtures. It is rated for a lamp life of 5,000 hours and is the lamp that the historic etched green glass shades were designed around. Because the fixtures are on a dimmer, they re-create the soft warm glow of gaslight but can switch to preset egress lighting levels in the event of an emergency. This solution avoids typical approaches, such as adding auxiliary fixtures within the historic space.

The Eldridge Street Synagogue was rededicated in December of 2007, 120 years after it first opened its doors. The congregation, which has never missed a Shabbat since the building was constructed, is now able to worship and spend time in the sanctuary. And for visitors of all faiths, the building is now a New York City Landmark, which through its cultural and educational programs and regular tours welcomes up to 20,000 visitors annually. It is, in the words of the Eldridge Street Project, a place for “historical reflection, aesthetic inspiration and spiritual renewal.”

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