The Angel Orensanz Center (originally Anshe Chesed Synagogue; also formerly known as the Norfolk Street Congregation and Anshe Slonim Synagogue) is located at 172 Norfolk Street (between Stanton Street and East Houston Street) in the Lower East Side of Manhattan, New York. It is housed in a Gothic Revival synagogue, built in 1849 for Congregation Ansche Chesed (People of Kindness).
It is the oldest surviving synagogue building in New York City, and the fourth-oldest surviving synagogue building in the United States. It was the largest synagogue in the United States at the time of its construction, and is one of the few built in Gothic Revival style.
The synagogue was built by Reform Congregation Ansche Chesed (People of Kindness), a congregation of primarily German Jews that was the third Jewish congregation in New York City. The building was designed by Eisenach (Germany)-born architect Alexander Saeltzer. It was sold to Congregation Shaari Rachmim (Gates of Mercy) in 1873, to The First Hungarian Congregation Ohab Zedek (To Love Righteousness) in 1886, and to congregation Sheveth Achim Anshe Slonim in 1921, which used it until 1974. That year, the synagogue was abandoned, and it was later vandalized.
Spanish sculptor and painter Angel Orensanz purchased the property in 1986. He restored it, and converted it into an art gallery and performance space known as the Angel Orensanz Foundation Center for the Arts. The building was designated a historic landmark by New York City the following year. It has subsequently become home to the Shul of New York, a liberal Reform synagogue.
The synagogue was built by Congregation Ansche Chesed (People of Kindness). Formed in 1825, Congregation Ansche Chesed consisted primarily of German Jews, as well as Dutch Jews and Polish Jews. They were mostly recent immigrants. It was the third Jewish congregation in New York City, after Shearith Israel (1655; from which the members of Congregation Ansche Chesed broke away) and B'nai Jeshurun (1825).
Congregation Achsche Chesed purchased the three lots upon which the synagogue was built, at 172 Norfolk Street (between Stanton Street and East Houston Street), on the Lower East Side of New York City, New York, in April 1849, for $10,500 (today $302,000). The lots had originally been part of Peter Stuyvesant's estate.
The synagogue building was designed by Eisenach-born architect Alexander Saeltzer, who was engaged in February 1849. Saeltzer also later designed the original Astor Library (now The Public Theater) in 1851, and the Academy of Music on Astor Place in 1854. The synagogue's Gothic Revival style was inspired by the Cologne Cathedral in Cologne, Germany, and Friedrichwerdesche Kirche in Berlin. According to a 1987 report by the New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission, while Gothic architecture is closely associated with Christianity, it had also become popular with synagogues as Jewish congregations had taken over old church buildings and become accustomed to the style, and viewed it as just as appropriate as any other architectural style.
The building opened in 1849 as Anshe Chesed Synagogue, and was also known as the Norfolk Street Congregation. The synagogue was formally opened and consecrated on May 16, 1850, with New York City's mayor and a number of members of the New York City Common Council and Christian clergy among the invited guests. It was the largest synagogue in the United States, and could hold up to 1,500 worshipers (with men on the main floor, and women in the gallery). It was the first German-Jewish synagogue in New York, and the second Reform synagogue after Congregation Emanu-El (1845).
Its members were traditional in their beliefs, and the congregation was "moderately traditionalist." Services were conducted primarily in German. It diverged from Orthodox tradition in that its hazzan and the pulpit faced the congregation (rather than being located in the center of the congregation), and the services were accompanied by musical instruments, including an organ that was added in 1869 at the same time as family pews were introduced, with men and women sitting together. A choir of men and women was also introduced. In the 1850s, it had the largest membership of any synagogue in the United States. Munich-born Dr. Max Lilienthal was the first rabbi at the new synagogue. Dr. Jonah Bondy became the synagogue's rabbi in 1858.
In 1874, Congregation Ansche Chesed merged with Congregation Adas Jeshurun and re-located uptown to Lexington Avenue and East 63rd Street, and formed Congregation Beth El. That congregation subsequently merged into Congregation Emanu-El, in 1927. The synagogue was later used by Eastern European Orthodox Jewish congregations, which reconfigured the space to the more traditional orientation and removed the organ. It was first sold to Congregation Shaari Rachmim (Gates of Mercy) in 1873, which used it until 1886. Then, as Shaari Rachim moved to New York City's Upper West Side, the synagogue was sold to The First Hungarian Congregation Ohab Zedek (To Love Righteousness) in 1886, which used it as its home until 1921. A congregation named Sheveth Achim Anshe Slonim (People of Slonim, Belarus; founded in 1888), worshiped there from 1921 until 1974, and called it Anshe Slonim Synagogue. By 1974, membership in the synagogue had dwindled as the neighborhood changed and the Slonim community had dispersed. The synagogue was abandoned, and was being vandalized.
Jewish Spanish sculptor and painter Angel Orensanz purchased the property in 1986. He restored it, and converted it into an art gallery and performance space, the Angel Orensanz Foundation for the Arts. The building was designated an historic landmark by New York City in 1987.
The Shul of New York, a liberal Reform synagogue organized in 1997 that is led by Rabbi Burt Siegel and whose services are accompanied by the Shul Band, originally held its Sabbath services at the synagogue, and now holds its Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur services there. It is the oldest standing synagogue in New York City.
Sarah Jessica Parker and Matthew Broderick were married there in 1997. Mandy Patinkin's Mamaloshen was also performed there, and Nobel Prize winner Elie Wiesel, poet Maya Angelou, playwright Arthur Miller, actress Tyne Daly, composer Philip Glass, and singers Whitney Houston and Mariah Carey have performed there. In 2003, Avril Lavigne recorded her music video for "Losing Grip" there with Liz Friedlander as the director. Taking Back Sunday's live acoustic album Live from Orensanz was recorded here in 2010. It was the venue for the 2011 live recording of MTV Unplugged by Florence + The Machine. In 2015, Venture Opera staged three performances of Mozart's opera Don Giovanni at the Orensanz Center. The same year, the Center was used in the filming of an episode of Jessica Jones.
The building's interior resembles that of the Cathedral of Notre-Dame in Paris. The sanctuary was designed to resemble the Sistine Chapel.
The building is 70 feet (21 m) wide, and 90 feet (27 m) deep. It has a main space of 7,000 square feet (650 m2) (and an assembly room of 4,000 square feet (370 m2)), and 50-foot (15 m) high cathedral blue ceilings. It has pointed arch tall lancet windows (originally surrounded by trefoil tracery and moldings) and doorways (surrounded by parts of moldings showing engaged columns and foliate capitals). Its larger center door is crowned by triangular molding that is almost as high as the second floor, which contains a Magen David with thin pinnacles on either side. It also has interior wooden vaults, and several balconies (one of which houses Angel Orensanz's studio). It has a tripartite front facade of red stone brick, covered with stucco, framed at its top by a pointed gable. Originally, the building was three stories high and topped by concave pyramidal roofs with finials atop them, but today it is two stories high and topped by buttressed, clearly differentiated side square towers on either side of the center section. The towers were an unusual feature at the time they were built, containing articulated stairwells to the galleries. Its original ceiling was deep blue, with gold stars.