Sharon Kleinbaum, senior rabbi of New York’s Congregation Beit Simchat Torah (CBST), jokes that the space her organization had occupied for most of its 43-year history was like a 1970s lesbian bar: in order to find the synagogue’s windowless quarters, buried deep within the venerable Westbeth artists’ housing complex in Greenwich Village, you had to follow very specific directions. Once inside, “you couldn’t see the outside world, and the outside world couldn’t see you,” she says.
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But now CBST, the world’s largest synagogue for lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender Jews, with about 600 member households, has a new home—one that, much like the LGBT community itself in recent years, has increased visibility. Early last month, CBST moved to a space designed by Architecture Research Office (ARO) on West 30th Street in the city’s rapidly shrinking garment district. It sits at the base of a 1929 Cass Gilbert loft building that has a beautifully restored terra-cotta and brick exterior. The synagogue, which occupies the ground floor and basement of the 18-story landmarked structure (now a condo building), announces itself from behind a 50-foot-long glass storefront adorned with gold-leaf pinstripes. Behind this, a pane of lavender glass—the facade’s only overt reference to the congregation’s LGBT identity—bears the Hebrew words “it’s good to give thanks to the one above.”
For CBST, this street presence (with the security advantage of a police station next door) was a key asset of the former fur and handbag shop, purchased by the organization in 2011. The space had many other desirable qualities, including an 18-foot-tall ground floor with a mezzanine. The configuration would allow ARO to design a sanctuary with a gallery and provide enough seating for 299 people—about twice the number who had been regularly attending Friday-night Shabbat services at a church in the Chelsea neighborhood (the congregation had long ago outgrown its Westbeth sanctuary). The space also had 13-foot-6-inch-high ceilings in the basement, making it well suited for a chapel, classrooms, and a community room. Still, with approximately 21,000 gross square feet, the new location did not quite match CBST’s programmatic ambitions. “It had everything we wanted except an extra 5,000 square feet,” says Aari Ludvigsen, vice president of the synagogue’s board and its capital project coordinator.
These spatial constraints, along with a tight construction budget of $8.8 million, meant that all the project’s elements would need to do double duty. For example, the lobby, which takes advantage of the ground floor’s height, can host receptions and encourages schmoozing before and after services. A generous stair leading to the lower level can serve as an informal seating area for the community room. And the chapel, which is large enough for a small wedding, is also the congregation’s library.
But, despite these constraints, the design team’s most notable triumph is the project’s welcoming feel and quiet drama. This is especially evident in the main sanctuary, which the clients envisioned as a refuge, explains Stephen Cassell, an ARO principal. Cassell and his team produced the desired atmosphere by placing the bimah (the elevated platform where the Torah is read) along the south, rear wall of building, rather than orienting the room to the east, toward Jerusalem, as is traditional. By doing so, they were able to create a shallow space where no seat is more than 35 feet from the pulpit. This intimacy is enhanced by subtly curved walls and a rich materials palette that includes midnight blue wallpaper and plum-colored cushions for the custom curved oak benches. Designed and fabricated in England, the seating can be stacked and rolled away so that the room can be used for dinners, including Passover seders, or other events.
ARO’s biggest move in the sanctuary was to demolish the existing exterior masonry wall and replace it with a new one that has vertical ribs in glass-fiber reinforced concrete (GFRC). The wall kicks out about 10 degrees at the top, permitting the insertion of a 46-foot-long skylight, without contributing to floor area. Direct sunlight, which will occasionally find its way between the surrounding densely packed buildings and through the skylight, along with indirect sunlight and inconspicuously placed electric illumination, show off the wall’s sculptural surface, giving it the appearance of pleated fabric. The new wall, and its angle, texture, and mass (achieved with 10 inches of structural concrete and 4 inches of GFRC), also help distribute sound throughout the room, even into the upper gallery.
As with any renovation project, ARO had to work with the existing building’s steel and concrete frame, even though this meant columns in a few awkward locations. But the architects have made the most of these occurrences, engaging the structure in meaningful ways. They transformed one column that rises from the bimah at the front of the sanctuary into a ner tamid—a lamp that is never extinguished, featured in every synagogue. CBST’s eternal light is minimal and modern, made by carving a torch-shaped void from the column. It is applied with gold leaf and illuminated with an LED array that is programmed to flicker every now and then like a flame.
The ner tamid is one of several traditional elements found at CBST that have been reimagined to merge craft, fabrication, and contemporary technology. Another is the ark that emerges from the sanctuary’s pleated wall and holds the congregation’s Torahs. The scrolls are protected by three layers, the innermost being a wine-hued fabric curtain, laser-cut with a floral motif derived from a frieze on a 14th-century synagogue in Toledo, Spain. This is a deliberate nod to Sephardim, who are a minority among American Jews, and it is intended as a symbol of the congregation’s diversity.
At CBST, even mundane elements communicate a commitment to inclusiveness. The main bathroom, labeled as a “shared restroom,” has seven private stalls with floor-to-ceiling partitions and a common sink area. In order to legally build in this configuration, CBST applied for, and was granted, a variance from the buildings department. In a letter that accompanied the application, Kleinbaum explained that the synagogue hoped to “build shalom bayit, a peaceful, safe, and inclusive home for all who come through our doors.” The architects have accomplished this through myriad carefully considered details that touch almost every aspect of the project. At the same time, they have given their clients a space of their own with the visibility, and the dignity, they deserve.
Architecture Research Office - Stephen Cassell, partner in charge;
Megumi Tamanaha, project director; Jane Lea, project manager;
Zachary Stevens, project designer;
Drew Powers, Yannik Neufang, Nora Yoo, Kai Pedersen, Ethan Feuer, Danielle Brown, Vikki Benefiel, Adam Stehura, Michael Haddy, project team
Silman (structural); Altieri Sebor Weber (m/e/p); Tillotson Design Associates (lighting);
Threshold Acoustics (acoustics); Reginald Hough Associates (concrete)
Congregation Beit Simchat Torah
21,000 square feet
Steel frame, concrete slabs, masonry walls
Metal/glass curtain wall: Kawneer TriFab 450 - Lynbrook Glass & Architectural Metals
Precast concrete: Pre-Cast GFRC Panels - Essex Works
Other cladding unique to this project: Custom historic facade metal work - Eurostruct Inc.
Elastomeric: Kemper Roofing System
Skylights: Custom metal-frame skylight with 5-1/4" thick glazing - Lynbrook Glass & Architectural Metals
Entrances: Kawneer TriFab 450 - Lynbrook Glass & Architectural Metals
Metal doors: Kawneer Encore with custom color - Lynbrook Glass & Architectural Metals
Wood doors: Custom oak doors at Sanctuary and Chapel - Eurostruct Inc.
Locksets: Dorma, Accurate
Exit devices: Dorma
Pulls: Custom door pulls - Excalibur Bronze
Security devices: DGA Security Systems
Other special hardware: Telescoping slider at Ark - City Joinery
Acoustical ceilings: Armstrong Ultima acoustic tile ceilings
Suspension grid: Armstrong Interlude XL
Demountable partitions: Sliding room divider - Modernfold
Cabinetwork and custom woodwork: Oak veneer cabinetry - Eurostruct, Inc.
Paints and stains: Benjamin Moore paints
Wall coverings: Wall coverings - Knoll
Plastic laminate: Abet Laminati
Solid surfacing: Caesarstone countertops
Special surfacing: Plaster wall surfaces
Floor and wall tile: Daltile - restroom floors
Carpet: Interface carpet tiles
Raised flooring: Epoxy terrazzo floors - Diversified Decorative Finishes
Special interior finishes unique to this project: Epoxy terrazzo floors - Diversified Decorative Finishes
Office furniture: Knoll Dividends Horizon
Reception furniture: Bernhardt Edge Chair
Fixed seating: Custom built-in seating - Luke Hughes
Chairs: Knoll Regeneration
Tables: Knoll Dividends Horizon
Interior ambient lighting: Litelab
Downlights: Lucifer Lighting Company
Dimming system or other lighting controls: Lutron
Elevators/escalators: Custom LU/LA elevator - Cambridge Elevating, Day Elevator
Accessibility provisions: Elevator
Energy management or building automation system: Energy Recovery Unit - Greenheck
Other unique products that contribute to sustainability: Lighting power at 10% below ASHRAE standards
Additional building components or special equipment that made a significant contribution to this project: Computer-controlled LED memorial walls - Studio1Thousand