Ninety Years at Fifth Avenue & 65th Street

Located along New York’s storied Fifth Avenue, Temple Emanu-El stands as one of the city’s preeminent architectural, cultural and religious landmarks. Emanu-El’s history dates back to the founding of the congregation in 1845 by a small group of German-Jewish immigrants who settled in the Lower East Side of New York City. As the congregation increased in size and affluence, its leadership opted to move worship services to larger and grander sites further uptown. In the mid-1920s, Emanu-El Congregation consolidated with Temple Beth-El, and construction of the magnificent site at Fifth Avenue and 65th Street was begun in 1927. Work was completed two years later.

Temple Emanu-El was designed and built by the era’s leading craftspeople—specialists in the implementation of mosaics, marbles, tiles, stained glass, metalwork and woodwork—who used the finest materials from around the world. The architectural firm of Kohn, Butler & Stein—headed by Robert D. Kohn, Charles Butler and Clarence Stein—led the team that also included the firms of Goodhue Associates and Mayers, Murray & Phillip as consultants.

From the time that Emanu-El’s doors first opened in 1929 at this location, it has been regarded as one of the most majestic synagogues in the world.

The Sanctuary

The main body of the Temple stands 100 feet wide, 175 feet long and 103 feet high. The sanctuary offers one of the very early examples of the use of architectural steel frame, which makes possible the 103-foot interior height without interior supporting pillars. To obtain the multihued ceiling, a layer of plaster was laid over the structural steel, then hand painted and gilded. As part of Emanu-El’s recent restoration, workers addressed water damage to the ceiling and painstakingly renewed the vivid colors to their original form.

A Time Capsule

There is a time capsule underneath our building’s cornerstone. Some highlights of its contents include Bibles in both Hebrew and English, Union Prayer Books, a history of both congregations Emanu-El and Beth-El, copies of the consolidation agreement, list of members, a set of US government-issued coins, and a Yad (Torah pointer). The photo above shows the laying of the cornerstone of the new temple on the corner of 65th Street and Fifth Avenue. From left to right: Louis Marshall (President of the Congregation), Benjamin Mordecai (Chairman of the Building Committee) and William Spiegelberg, 1928.

A Part in World War II

From 1942 to 1946, Temple Emanu-El’s I.M. Wise Hall served as a United Service Organizations (USO) canteen. During this time, we welcomed more than 1,350,000 men and women of the armed forces of the United Nations. Over 5,000 volunteers helped to entertain, serve, and create a home away from home for servicepeople at Emanu-El during World War II.

The Astor Wine Cellar

Temple Emanu-El was built on the site of the Astor Mansion. While our Fifth Avenue landmark bears no resemblance to the mansion pictured above, the original wine cellar was left untouched. Eventually, however, the cellar had to be reinforced due to a risk of collapse under heavier loads. This reinforcement was especially important for parades sent up Fifth Avenue.

The Ark

Emanu-El’s ark was designed to depict an open Torah scroll, with the side pillars representing staves (atzei chayim) and the finials atop serving as the scroll decorations (rimonim). The gates become the open scroll with the depiction of the Tablets of the Law set in the center. Emanu-El’s “Torah within a Torah” gives added meaning to the phrase from Pirkei Avot, “Turn the Torah and turn it again for everything is in it.” The distinctive glass-and-marble mosaic arch that frames the bimah was designed by Hildreth Meière—one of very few women whose achievements gained the recognition of the established art world during the first half of the 20th century.

The Wheel Window

Most prominent of the stained-glass windows featured on the sanctuary’s western façade is Oliver Smith’s rose or wheel window, which is replete with numerical strategies that are a subtext of Jewish mysticism. Emanu-El’s “signature” window is comprised of 12 panes (symbolic of the tribes of Israel) surrounding a six-pointed Magen David. Circling the rose are 36 small panes — significant because of the Talmudic reference to 36 righteous men in each generation who are responsible for preserving the world; 36 also signifies “double life” in gematria (numerology of the Hebrew language and alphabet) because 2×18=36, and 18 is the numerical value of the Hebrew word chai, which means “life.”

The Largest Synagogue Organ

As the largest synagogue organ in the world, Emanu-El’s organ features 10,000 pipes ranging in size from that of a pencil to nearly 35 feet tall. In the spring of 2000, Emanu-El began a 2½-year restoration of the organ that involved the dismantling of the entire instrument so that each component could be evaluated carefully, repaired or remade as needed. The organ also has a new console built of fine woods and onyx. The restoration was completed by Glück New York.

Our Glass Mosaics

Using shimmering gold and jewel tones that evoke the palette of Gustav Klimt, mosaicist Meière incorporated both Jewish imagery and stylized elements that eventually would become known as Art Deco. Among the images found in the eight-story-high arch is a pair of Sabbath candles, a date palm, a menorah, a prayer shawl (tallit), a perpetual lamp (ner tamid) and a Torah scroll. At the top center of the arch is a creation scene from Genesis that depicts the separation of the sky from the sea (pictured).

The Hidden Choir Loft

Located about 25 feet above the bimah floor is the choir loft and organ screen. The loft features a pierced marble railing, on top of which is mounted marble columns of various colors that support a varied pattern of small arches. The arches, in turn, support a pierced plaster screen (or ornamental grille) that conceals the organ—part of which is housed above the choir loft and continues beyond the sanctuary vault.

Original Building Sketches

Architects Kohn, Butler and Stein began with many different ideas for our iconic sanctuary, from domed Byzantine structures to Modernist buildings. The drawings below are only two of many early renderings of building designs for our temple. Eventually, they chose the Romanesque Revival design of today’s Temple Emanu-El and the building was opened only two years after construction began in 1927.