The Life of the Synagogue

Temple Emanu-El, New York City

Fifth Avenue from 42nd Street, looking north
Fifth Avenue from 42nd Street, looking north
Lithograph by R. A. Welcke, New York
Printed by R. A. Welcke, New York
From a photograph by John Bachmann (1879)
Published by Max Williams, New York

The still young but already affluent Reform Temple Emanu-El was the first New York congregation to move north of 42nd Street, relocating from its previous location at 110 East 12th Street in a former Baptist church. The building constructed at the corner of Fifth Avenue and 43rd Street was the first purpose-built synagogue for the congregation, which, following Reform custom, referred to its house of worship as a “temple.” As this view shows, the area was still modestly developed in 1868.

Due to the configuration of New York City’s building lots, Temple Emanu-El, like most houses of worship in the city, opened right onto the sidewalk and street. Located on the corner, it was large and conspicuous, built to be seen—by everyone. Temple Emanu-El introduced the new Moorish-style synagogue of Central Europe to New York, along with a host of new building technologies. It was also one of the first American synagogues built with twin façade towers, a design element soon to become common. On Fifth Avenue, the towers competed with nearby church steeples, an act of urbanism almost unheard of in Europe before the 1850s.

Architects Leopold Eidlitz (1823–1908), and Henry Fernbach (1829–1883) were both born into Jewish families in Europe—Eidlitz in Prague and Fernbach in Breslau—and became the first known Jewish architects in North America. Eidlitz designed many secular and religious buildings and had a broad impact on 19th-century American design. Fernbach worked closely with the Jewish community, designing Temple Shaaray Tefila at 127 W 44th Street (1869) and Central Synagogue at 55th Street and Lexington Avenue (1872), as well as commercial buildings for German-Jewish New Yorkers.

In coming decades, other impressive synagogues would be built uptown. These included Zichron Ephraim (Park East Synagogue) at 163 E 67th Street (1890), Beth Israel Bikur Cholim at Lexington Avenue and 72nd Street (1890), Temple Beth-El at Fifth Avenue and 76th Street (1891), Congregation Shearith Israel at Central Park West and 70th Street (1897), and others.