New York–based Architecture Research Office (ARO) has unveiled plans for a new 17,000-square-foot facility for Congregation Beit Simchat Torah (CBST), the world’s largest gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender synagogue. The firm began working with CBST in 2007, but, soon after that, the acquisition of the initial site fell through. After that early setback, ARO worked with the client on a four- to five-month programming study. They looked at nearly 40 sites before settling on a historic Cass Gilbert–designed building on West 30th Street, which dates back to 1928.
“It’s such a beautiful building,” says principal Stephen Cassell, AIA, of the final site, noting that the Assyrian-style terra-cotta and stonework on the historic façade are “the types of detailing that go pretty well with a synagogue.” The plans—which are currently in the landmarks approval process—call for reconfiguring the storefront and restoring some of the historic detailing on the façade, but with “super-minimal strategic intervention,” Cassell says. And while the intervention is minimal to respect the existing structure, the result is a long glazed façade that invites people into CBST. “Having 50 feet of storefront and a major presence was important for them,” Cassell says.
Inside, a 16-foot-high lobby gives way to classrooms, a chapel, rabbinical offices, and a main sanctuary that holds 299 . A stair leads down to a 13-foot-high lower lobby, which has an adjacent catering and community kitchen. All of the spaces can serve multiple functions to accommodate the congregation’s service, classes, social justice efforts, chorus rehearsals, and special events—even the main sanctuary can be turned into a dining hall for a wedding reception. “It’s like a packing problem,” Cassell says, noting that trying to fit the broad program into such a small footprint, all while maintaining the existing floor area ratio and column grid was like “fitting 10 pounds of synagogue in a -5-pound bag. Just even fitting the elevator in … it’s tight,” he says.
In the main sanctuary, curved wood seating surrounds the central ark and stage, which are backed by a canted 1-foot-thick cast concrete wall washed in daylight that filters in through an existing light shaft. An existing mezzanine provides additional seating.
Cassell characterizes CBST’s congregation as being “deeply traditional in how they look at Judaism—and then they reinterpret it.” He notes that parallels can be drawn between the congregation’s religious approach and the firm’s project, which takes “the historical references in this beautiful, traditional building and then puts a modern insertion in it; there’s a nice alignment with how they [CBST] practice Judaism.”
The design team is targeting LEED Gold certification, and expects the project will be complete in 2014.