The Foundation – Pre-Renovation

The interior of the Foundation - pre renovation

These are pictures of the Angel Orensanz Foundation before it was the magnificent building it is today.  Here are a series of excerpts from the booklet “From Ansche Chesed to Angel Orensanz” written by Dr. Al Orensanz, who is the Director of the Foundation:

…The windows in the front were first stoned and then boarded up by the city, and the three doors in the front were cinderblocked by the city to prevent further crime. The gates were stolen, the books, Torahs,
ornaments, pews, brass, the grand chandelier in the center of the space, above the bimah, the steps of the stairways, everything was vandalized, broken and destroyed. The Norfolk Street temple provided access to a web of passages and tunnels in a maze of  abandoned buildings in the block that were open stages for crime day and night. The temple, once empty and desolate, was taken care of by an elderly woman named Klara, who lived in the lower part of the building with some hundred cats. She used to come out at midday with her cats to sit and feed them in rows on the broken steps. One day, her cats surfaced as usual at noontime, without Klara. She was found dead in a corner of the Assembly Room…

…The neighborhood declined under the mayoral administrations of Abraham Beame, Edward Koch and David Dinkins, in a growing spiral of fires, boarding up of buildings, criminality and drug traffic. Abandoned synagogues were easy targets for vandals who destroyed the structures, stole the ornaments

The outside of the synagogue

and furniture, and pilfered the brass, copper and other reusable materials. Antique dealers used to park their trucks in front of shuls while vagrants
would load up them with pews, chandeliers, bookshelves and Aaron Kodesh. Jules Dassin, in his 1948 movie, The Naked City, movingly captures Norfolk Street and the exterior of our building. It is the grit of the neighborhood, but Dassin weighs in premonition and an ominous scent of the city’s imminent downturn. Our building on Norfolk Street ceased religious services in the spring of 1974 and was purchased by a string of developers who were expecting a revival of the neighborhood…

…On one evening in February 1986, Angel Orensanz, recently arrived from Atlanta, Georgia, took a stroll around the Lower East Side looking for a building where he could establish his sculpture studio. He walked from Delancey past the corner of Rivington and Norfolk and up to Houston, finally stumbling upon the former Anshe Slonin on Norfolk Street. Grim, silent and abused, the building looked grounded and frightened. Thomas McEvilley imagined the building sitting “like an ancient spirit with folded wings.” Orensanz moved up the steps and peeped through a crack in the cinderblocks covering the doorspaces.

The front doors were boarded by the city in an attempt to thwart crime

The sun was setting, spanning an arch of light over the ark and the eastern wall. Beams were leaning from the balconies into the main space, strewn with debris, broken glass, decaying books and dark stairways. Orensanz later located the owner, a developer with numerous holdings in the neighborhood, who eventually sold him the building.

Soon after purchasing the property, he opened its doors and windows, sealing them off from pigeons and the wind and snow. Then he secured the floors and brought in electric light. By the late spring of 1986, he opened an exhibition of his new work, for a museum of John Portman at Sea Island. People were enchanted by the space when the doors opened. Since that day, close to a million people have come to hear concerts, attend services, see exhibitions, participate in weddings, bar and bat mitzvahs and all kinds of lectures, community events and holidays. Lou Reed, Philip Glass, Whitney Houston, Jerry Adams, Elie Wiesel, Spike Lee, Alexander McQueen, Sidney Lumet, Neil Shikoff, Mandy Patinkin, Maya Angelou, Erica Jong, Lars Lubovitch, Jacques Derrida, Norman Mailer, Arthur Miller, the Kronos Quartet, Frank and Malachy McCourt, P.S. 1, the Whitney Museum, The Goethe Institute, The Italian Cultural Institute, The British Council, and hundreds of other well known people and institutions have addressed large assemblies of people or presented their creations for audiences from around the world…

The booklet can be found on the Angel Orensanz website

The dilapidation of the building was shocking


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