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City Approves Partial Demolition of Historic Synagogue on Lower East Side

 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 city's Landmarks Preservation Commission has approved a plan to knock down parts of the historic Beth Hamedrash Hagodol synagogue, which was ravaged by fire when a teen set it ablaze in May.

The commission on Tuesday signed off on the synagogue board's general application to demolish the structure at 60 Norfolk St. with modifications — giving engineers permission to remove the unsafe chunks of the crumbling building but requiring that other parts be assessed and preserved if possible, according to LPC's Director of Communications Damaris Olivo.

The commission found that the 167-year-old house of worship was significantly damaged by the May 14 inferno, and that parts of the structure — especially on the west, north and south sides of the building — must be removed because they pose a safety hazard, the Olivo said.

Other parts of the structure, however, need to be inspected before it is determined whether they can be saved, said Olivo.

The work will be monitored by the LPC's engineer and will be done in such a way that minimizes the amount of the structure that must be removed — the facade will be demolished only to the extent that it must be in order to stabilize the structure, said Olivo.

The LPC's insistence on preservation echoes the wishes of both the synagogue's rabbi and engineers hired to assess the damage, who last month pledged to salvage as much of the synagogue as possible.

Engineers have said a full demolition is likely, but that they have not yet been able to assess parts of the structure because parts of the facade are dangerously unstable.

Rabbi Mendel Greenbaum has also stated he will resurrect a synagogue at the site regardless of what happens to the original structure.

The beloved building had served the neighborhood's Russian Orthodox community for over a century, but had sat derelict for roughly a decade after falling into decay.

It was first built in 1850 as a Baptist church, then in 1885 was acquired by the oldest Russian Orthodox congregation in the country, LPC documents show. It was designated a city landmark in 1967. 

But the structure had fallen into dangerous disrepair by 2007 and was shuttered by the rabbi, who says he had briefly considered demolition but ultimately favored preservation and had been fighting for the necessary funds for years.

Shortly before the fire, the rabbi had been working in partnership with the Chinese-American Planning Council to sell the synagogue's air rights to a developer in order to facilitate synagogue renovations and the construction of a neighboring community center — the planning council has said they are still keen on pursuing a similar arrangement, but details and a timeline remain up in the air following the blaze. 

The synagogue still must apply for a demolition permit through the Department of Buildings before work can begin. An application had not been filed as of Tuesday evening. 

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