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Temple Emanu-El

840 Fifth Avenue/1 East 65th Street

Northeast corner at Fifth Avenue

Congregation Emanu-El

Congregation Emanu-El seen from the southwest

By Carter B. Horsley

The elegant, limestone-clad structure of Temple Emanu-El is the largest synagogue in the world.

Rather austere and very imposing, its mammoth bulk is graced with a large, handsome tower at its rear in the middle of the cross-street.

Its large congregation is among the most influential in New York and it is the largest Reform congregation in the United States as well as the oldest in the city.

Construction began in 1927 when Emanu-El merged with Congregation Beth El, which had been located further up Fifth Avenue. Emanu-El had occupied a Moorish-style building on Fifth Avenue and 43rd Street that had been designed by Leopold Eidlitz, "a vivid combination of Viollet-le-Duc's structural theories and Saracenic ornament," according to Robert A. M. Stern, Gregory Gilmartin and Thomas Mellins in their great book, "New York 1930, Architecture and Urbanism between the Two World Wars," (Rizzoli International, 1987).

This structure replaced the double-wide mansion designed by Richard Morris Hunt for Mrs. Caroline Schermerhorn Astor, the famous socialite, and completed in 1895. The present building, which was completed in 1929, was designed by Robert D. Kohn, Clarence Stein and Charles Butler in an Art Deco-interpretation of Moorish and Romanesque styles. The new building incorporated some Tiffany windows from the 43rd Street building and new windows by Oliver Smith and the Nicola D'Ascenzo Studio.

Authors Stern, Gilmartin and Mellins provide the following commentary on Temple Emanu-El:

"In its size, prominence, and lavish materials, the new temple was clearly intended to view with the major cathedrals - St. Patrick's and St. John the Divine - as the city's preeminent Jewish landmark. Indeed Kenneth Murchison reported that the new temple left its beholders 'speechless at the beauty and majesty of its structure.' 'We felt ourselves free in choice of detail with which to ornament the structural form,' Clarence Stein confided in 1930. Not surprisingly, Stein, formerly a close associate of Bertram Grosvenor Goodhue, and his collaborators, decided to develop the design 'from the Romanesque as used in the south of Italy under the influence of the Moorish, because it was an expression of the intermingling of Occidental and Oriental thought. We might just as well have started with some other style, as the detail gradually developed into new forms and certainly new scale in the drafting room and in the sculptor's studio. Above all it was scale that governed our form. Because the site abutted an apartment house then under construction, it was felt 'a single great motif of composition and a great expanse of plain wall surface would distinguish the mass from the innumerable beehive holes and cut-up surfaces of the adjoining apartments.' The massing strategy was typical of that evolved by Goodhue and others in the Composite Era....North of the auditorium a low chapel was set back for Fifth Avenue to provide a small plot of greenery and divorce the auditorium from the adjoining apartment house. The main facade was dominated by a gabled front flanked by stair towers, and a huge recessed arch sheltered a rose window and three entrances."

façade detail

Façade detail

The large and handsome sanctuary, which is 147 feet long, 77 feet wide and 103 feet high, can seat 2,500 persons. The congregation began with 33 members in rented space at Clinton and Grand Streets in 1845 and moved three years later to a new facility on Chrystie Street and in 1854 to the Twelve Street Baptist Church at 120 East 12th Street, which is now the St. Ann's Armenian Catholic church. The Emanu-El congregation moved to Fifth Avenue and 43rd Street in 1868 were "the first permanent English-speaking rabbi, Gustave Gottheil, was installed, according to David Dunlap in his excellent book, "Glory in Gotham, Manhattan's Houses of Worship" (a City & Company Guide, 2001, see The City Review article). "Emanu-El had only two senior rabbis: Nathan Perlman and Ronald Sobel. Its longtime cantor, Howard Nevison, was the first cantor to sing at the Vatican," Mr. Dunlap wrote.

Synagogue's tower

View of top of tower from southeast

This complex also contains the Beth-El Chapel, which can seat up to 350 people, and a six-story community house and religious school.

The Fifth Avenue façade is graced by a large circular window with 12 spokes that represent the twelve tribes of Israel, whose symbols are also represented on the three sets of bronze entrance doors. According to an article ( by Gerard Fernandez, the associate architects for this structure were Mayers, Murray and Phillip.

The synagogue are available and it is open every day from 10 AM to 5 PM with services at 5:30 PM and Sabbath services at 5:15 PM Fridays, which are broadcast on WQXR, the radio station of The New York Times, and 10:30 AM Saturdays.

The synagogue is in an historical district and is at the Fifth Avenue exit of the 65th Street Transverse Road through Central Park.

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