49 White Street, 1965–1967

This site is included in LMCC’s Creative Insider’s Guide to Lower Manhattan, sponsored by Launch LM.

Among the many fine historic buildings that line White Street between Broadway and Church Street, Tribeca Synagogue (formerly the Synagogue for the Arts) may come as a surprise. Approached from either corner, it sits between two 19th-century Italianate-style structures. Part of the Tribeca East Historic District, this remarkable block transports us to a much earlier time when this area of Lower Manhattan was an important mercantile center. The synagogue, however, was constructed in 1965-67. Originally known as Shaare Zedek or the Civic Center Synagogue, this Orthodox Jewish congregation was founded in 1938 by civil servants and office workers for weekday morning and evening worship. Renamed in the late 1980s, the synagogue now serves mainly residents of Tribeca.

This unique building neither complements nor competes with its White Street neighbors. Set behind a modest concrete plaza, the synagogue is a remarkable example of mid-20th century modern aesthetics, a structure that brings to mind works by Eero Saarinen, Alvar Aalto, and even late Frank Lloyd Wright. Following completion of the Solomon Guggenheim Museum in 1959, an increasing number of American architects experimented with reinforced concrete, a composite material with outstanding tensile strength that can be cast into an endless variety of shapes. Faced with slender white marble tiles, the synagogue’s thin-shell concrete structure billows over the plaza and the box-like structure that contains the entrance/stair hall.

Following the end of the Second World War, architects who specialized in synagogue design enthusiastically embraced modernism, abandoning the traditional Byzantine and Classical-style forms associated with earlier European houses of worship. The building’s architect, William N. Breger, attended the Harvard Graduate School of Design, where such prominent Bauhaus alumni as Walter Gropius and Marcel Breuer, led the faculty. Breger, who taught at Brooklyn’s Pratt Institute, was especially proud of the commission, and described it as the “only building I’ve done where I could really express myself.” Many observers see the curved facade as flame-like, a likely reference to divine light and the hanging sanctuary lamps that burn continuously in synagogues.

If the synagogue is open to visit, step inside and climb the unassuming stairs. The sanctuary, which seats about 300, has an unexpected Baroque quality. Though the vast space is windowless, an angled skylight softly illuminates the wide birch-slatted wall that curves up behind the altar and adjoins the street.

Matthew A. Postal