Starry Night on the Lower East Side


Kiki Smith is nearing the completion of a stained-glass window commissioned for the 1887 Eldridge Street Synagogue on Manhattan’s Lower East Side. Designed with architect Deborah Gans, the 16-foot-diameter window will occupy the eastern wall, the direction faced during prayer. Inspired by existing painted elements in the sanctuary domes and on the wall surrounding the window, Smith and Gans came up with a design featuring a constellation of gold stars on a blue firmament. The window’s ribs radiate from a Star of David at the center. Since 1945, the space that held the original window, which was damaged and for which there is no known documentation, has been filled in with masonry and four vertical columns of glass blocks.

The still-functioning synagogue was built by Eastern European Jews in a neighborhood that many immigrant groups have first called home in America. The luminous neo-Moorish interior, with faux finishes painted to look like marble, stone and richer woods, provided a sharp contrast to the dismal living conditions of the area’s new residents. Because most Jewish families moved away as they became more prosperous (the area has now been overtaken by Chinatown sprawl), the congregation has dwindled to less than 30 members. The structure fell into disrepair and the main sanctuary was sealed in the mid-1950s. But a 20-year, $18.5-million restoration project, spearheaded by Roberta Brades Gratz, resulted in its reopening as a museum in December 2007. The project received an award in 2008 from the National Trust for Historic Preservation, among other honors.

The window’s unveiling later this spring coincides with Smith’s exhibition, “Sojourn,” which is on view at the Brooklyn Museum through Sept. 12. “Lodestar,” a show featuring related stained-glass work by the artist, can be seen at Pace-Wildenstein on 22nd Street, Apr. 30-June 19.

Photo: Digital rendering of Kiki Smith and Deborah Gans’s window design for the Eldridge Street Synagogue, to be installed this spring.