Against a Historic District: Don’t Landmark Religious Buildings

synagogue, East VillageMichelle Rick

Today on The Local, we’re hosting a dialogue about the neighborhood’s proposed historic districts. First, Britton Baine and Richard Moses, who serve on the steering committee of the Lower East Side Preservation Initiative, spoke out in favor of them. Now architect Ido Nissani argues that one of the districts would burden and disrespect the synagogue he attends. Add your own thoughts via the comments.

As an active member of the Meseritz Synagogue on East Sixth Street and a graduate of Cooper Union, the East Village has come to be part of my heart.

Recently, our house of worship has been included in a proposed historic district in the neighborhood. This has caused great concern among the congregation of the synagogue about the expenses associated with being a landmarked building, as well as the implication of ceding dominion of our building to a city agency.

For those who ask: “What guarantees do we have that the historic synagogue will still stand many years from now if it is not landmarked?” I respond: “What guarantees do we have to see these very buildings standing if they are landmarked?”

The Landmarks Preservation Commission was created merely 46 years ago; our synagogue has been around for more than a century. Even more importantly, our congregation — which in broader terms is the Jewish people — has been around for thousands of years. We are masters of preservation. We have preserved our customs, congregations, laws, artifacts and traditions from the time when there was not even paper to write down the date.

We are not against landmarking the East Village. Quite the contrary. We are preservationists ourselves. Our congregation has preserved not only the synagogue, but itself, for more than a century. We are the most capable people to preserve our synagogue. We have strong motivations to keep it standing, which the Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation cannot see because of their insensitivity towards religion.

The very essence of our existence as a community bears the intrinsic fact that we need to keep our building alive. Not just for us, but for our future generations. Unfortunately, the LPC and the GVSHP want to preserve only dead stones. On the contrary, we concentrate on keeping alive the stones along with the community: the greater community of the East Village.

The most illogical aspect is that the very people who never stepped foot in this building now feel entitled not only to have a say, but to even have control over the building. They disrespect all the people that have sacrificed their time, efforts, and sometimes lives to keep this congregation alive. Most of all, they disrespect Rabbi Ackerman, who has given 42 years of his life for this community.

It was discovered that the LPC doesn’t have any documentation of the buildings in the proposed district. How can we trust the LPC in the purpose of this plan if the GVSHP publicly expressed that they have done a vast research of the district, building by building, and none of this is present in the LPC folders? Maybe the LPC has ulterior motives? It is clear that landmarking is not the only way to preserve the neighborhood.

There is an important distinction to be made between religious institutions and private buildings, respectively portraying the extremes of the public versus private spectrum. Houses of worship are not private and generally not for profit, while apartment buildings are the opposite; individually owned and for profit.

Landmarking brings prestige and added value only to private buildings, which are the most in danger of being altered. On the other hand, houses of worship already have prestige, and no monetary value can be compared to the sentimental, historical, and spiritual value these buildings have for the community. They are priceless.

Research has demonstrated that landmarking brings big financial burdens to religious institutions, and if any grants are available they arrive with heavy delays and are an insignificant percentage of the amount needed.

The best-suited people to preserve and control the religious institutions are their own congregants and no restrictions should be imposed on them from the LPC. Houses of worship should be excluded from the landmarking master plan as it is, and there should be effort and time devoted to find a more thoughtful compromise.