Brooklyn Structure: Emery Roth designed this Shul bathing seaside
Editor’s note: This post was originally published in 2014 and has been updated. You can read the previous post here.
In 1918, the growing Sons of Israel Congregation in Bath Beach hired an aspiring Jewish architect to design their new synagogue at 2115 Benson Avenue. His name was Emery Roth, who became one of New York’s most important architects of the 20th century, and the church room he designed for the congregation is still on the corner of 21st and Benson.
Bath Beach’s Sons of Israel Congregation was founded in 1896 by 60 Orthodox Jewish families who had settled in south Brooklyn to build a community. They met first in rented rooms for church services and sometimes at the members’ homes. Funds were immediately collected for a separate church service room and a year later the foundation stone was laid for a new synagogue. The first Sons of Israel Congregation was located on 22nd Bay Street, near 86th and Benson Avenues. Although the building was not fully completed, they had a roof over their heads and done enough to welcome the Jewish New Year with Rosh Hashanah services in 1898.
In desperate need of more church services by 1918, the congregation was able to purchase a large corner lot at 21st and Benson Avenues. Your architect Emery Roth already had at least one synagogue under his design – the Adath Jeshurun von Jassy Synagogue on Rivington Street on the Lower East Side. This building was built in 1903, the same year he designed the Hotel Belleclaire on Broadway. The Belleclaire is a New York City landmark, as are many of Roth’s buildings.
Roth continued his training in the design of sacred spaces and in 1915 also designed the First Hungarian Reformed Church. Roth was born in Gálszécs, Hungary in 1871 and emigrated to the United States alone at the age of 13. The church is located on East 69th Street and is its only Christian church. He designed it in the popular Hungarian style.
The Congregation of the Sons of Israel would be anything but popular. According to the Real Estate Record and Builder’s Guide, Roth’s original design for the synagogue was a neoclassical octagonal temple with a domed roof made of red Spanish bricks. The building was to be constructed of limestone, and the large square entrance would form a rectangle with the rest of the building. Inside, the space of the sanctuary under the dome would be completely open, giving an excellent view of the altar and Torah from every seat. Seven sides of the dome arch would be pierced with leaded glass windows that would illuminate the interior.
In addition, the basement would only be partially underground with large windows so that a meeting room, offices and classrooms could be accommodated there. The entire building would be 100 by 100 feet and stand on a plot of approximately 194 by 100 feet.
The foundation stone of the synagogue was laid on June 22, 1919. Governor Alfred E. Smith accepted an invitation to attend and speak, as did many other civil and political officials, both Jewish and non-Jewish. Many Jewish judges were invited, including State Supreme Court Justice Edward Lazansky. Cantor and celebrated tenor Joseph Rosenblatt sang on site and led his choir in several selections. All the officers of the synagogue and leading Jewish religious and secular men and women were also present. The foundation stone was laid with great pomp and the building rose.
The finished building we see today is very different from Emery Roth’s design, as first proposed in 1918. The entrance became much larger and the octagon became square. The biggest change was that Roth’s wonderful domed sanctuary has been scrapped and rises a much smaller dome behind the gable entrance and the rest of the roof looks flat.
The site was expanded to include a Talmud Torah along Benson Avenue in 1927. The building now houses the Elite Academy of Science and Technology, a mixed Jewish high school.
[Photos by Susan De Vries]
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