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Arson-Ravaged Historic LES Synagogue Files for Demolition Permit

 The Beth Hamedrash Hagodol synagogue was largely destroyed in a massive fire.
The Beth Hamedrash Hagodol synagogue was largely destroyed in a massive fire.
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DNAinfo/Janon Fisher

LOWER EAST SIDE — The remains of the historic Beth Hamedrash Hagodol synagogue, which was largely destroyed when a teen set it ablaze in May, could get the wrecking ball if the city signs off on a request to knock down the surviving structure.

A synagogue board member filed an application with the Landmarks Preservation Commission to demolish what is left of the structure at 62 Norfolk St., the agency confirmed. 

So far only a general demolition application has been filed, said an LPC spokeswoman, meaning the application doesn't specify whether only part of the building or the entire building would be knocked down. 

The Department of Buildings has deemed the structure unstable, a spokesman said, but will not mandate an emergency demolition because a closed-off area around the building is protecting neighboring properties in case of collapse. The property's owner is free to pursue demolition or repairs through the proper channels, the spokesman added.

The synagogue on Friday submitted materials to Community Board 3 to have the request heard by the advisory panel this week, District Manager Susan Stetzer confirmed. Representatives will make their case at Tuesday's Landmarks Committee meeting — the board's website says the applicant will seek either a partial or full demolition depending on "structural findings." 

But the LPC will ultimately determine whether the landmarked building can be demolished — the agency will assess the integrity of the site's remains and take health and safety issues into account to determine whether demolition is the best course of action, a spokeswoman said. 

Rabbi Mendel Greenbaum told The Lo Down, which first reported the news, that he arranged for the application after the DOB expressed concern about the structure's stability, noting investigators had been unable to set foot inside the crumbling building.

The rabbi previously said he had been in talks with the Chinese-American Planning Council and the Gotham Organization to renovate and preserve the synagogue and to develop a neighboring property. Neither group could immediately provide an update on the prospective plans.

Greenbaum did not return requests for comment on the demolition application or future plans for the site.

First built in 1850 as the Norfolk Street Baptist Church, the building was ultimately acquired in 1885 by the Beth Hamedrash Hagdol congregation — the oldest Russian Orthodox congregation in the United States, according to LPC documents. It was designated a city landmark in 1967.

The building began crumbling after weathering a wind storm in 1997 and a fire in 2001, and after years of further disrepair Rabbi Greenbaum chose to shutter the synagogue in 2007, according the the Lo Down.

On Monday, Councilwoman Margaret Chin expressed concern over the demolition plans, noting she hopes at least part of the 167-year-old house of worship can be preserved.

"When this devastating fire occurred, I held out hope that this vital piece of the Lower East Side's history could  be preserved for future generations," Chin said in a statement. "Today, I still hope that a portion of this historic structure can be saved. I urge all of the parties involved to work together to explore every option to prevent the full demolition of this sacred building." 

A 14-year-old boy was ultimately arrested and charged by police with arson for starting the three-alarm fire, though prosecutors have yet to charge him. The city's Law Department is still investigating the matter, according to the department.