On April 3rd the Congregation Beit Simchat Torah (CBST) made its move – literally, as a procession – from its old digs at 57 Bethune Street in the West Village to the ground floor of a Cass Gilbert landmark on West 30th Street near Herald Square. Designed by New York's Architecture Research Office (ARO), the synagogue occupies actually three floors: the ground floor, a mezzanine, and a basement. Although the synagogue's main spaces are tucked away from the street, it has a highly visible street presence thanks to large expanses of storefront glass. In other words CBST, the largest LGBTQS synagogue in the world, is out and proud, a clear change from the hidden, dark home it occupied for nearly 40 years.
[All photographs © Elizabeth Felicella/Esto]
ARO's design for CBST is fairly straightforward but subtly special in the right places. It's clear the budget for the 17,000-square-foot project was not high, but that did not preclude ARO from laying out the spaces to maximum effect, starting with the double-height lobby. This bright, white space gives members of the synagogue a place to socialize while clearly pointing to the main spaces: behind the wood doors straight ahead is the sanctuary; down the stairs to the left are the lower lobby, community kitchen, chapel/library, and rooms for study and teaching; to the right are the rabbinical offices, located both on the ground floor and the mezzanine.
Not surprisingly the Wine Family Sanctuary, as it's officially called, packs the most punch. Although most removed from the street, it is nevertheless a light-filled space thanks to a 46-foot-long skylight formed by tilting the back wall at a 10-degree angle. GFRC panels with variable vertical serrations accentuate the shadows that are cast down the wall, while also giving the impression that this wall is made of fabric rather than concrete. The ark and its sliding, twisted-wood walls are propped in front of the wall, off-center with a row of columns that bisect the space. This structural constraint is off-putting at first, but ARO handled it well by integrating the eternal light into the face of the column.
Downstairs are more columns to contend with, one of them smack in the middle of the stair that flairs out to define one side of the lower lobby. A straight stair descending next to the column would have been the route for nine out of ten architects, but thankfully ARO is in the minority, able to make a strong, memorable, and doubly useful place (seats as well as stair, as the photo indicates) out of numerous constraints and a limited palette.
The Kuriel Chapel, located off of the lower lobby, is like a miniature rendition of the sanctuary space upstairs, minus the dramatic natural lighting. The twisted wood form upstairs is introduced here, framing the ark and its sliding bronze doors.
During a press tour of the project a few days before its April 3rd dedication, I immersed myself in the architectural design while listening to comments focused on CBST's complicated history. Rabbi Sharon Kleinbaum, a natural storyteller, spoke of its members succumbing to AIDS but also of the support they gave each other in those dark days. These and other stories are told in, appropriately, the restroom, which is all-gender – it features open sinks and separate rooms for toilets and required a variance from the city to built. Wallcoverings depict the trials, tribulations and successes of the congregation, fittingly in a space that captures the societal changes that have occurred since CBST was founded in 1973.