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East End Temple

East End Temple 1 Historic Site Synagogues Gramercy Stuyvesant Square

It would be easy to walk right past the East End Temple. From the street, it does not look how one might expect an active synagogue to appear. It is part of a row house designed by the renowned Beaux-Arts architect Richard Morris Hunt for Sidney Webster, a governor of New York, United States senator, and Ulysses S. Grant’s Secretary of State. Its exterior is impeccably well-maintained, and has been designated a New York Historic Landmark. It is the splendid interior, however, on which the congregation has truly left its stamp.

East End Temple was founded as Congregation El Emet (which means “God of Truth” in Hebrew), a name they still use, in 1948. Its founders were World War II veterans living nearby in Stuyvesant Town. For the first part of its existence, the congregation met in a building at 23rd Street and Second Avenue. In 2004, the congregation moved into its current building following a complete architectural overhaul that involved refurbishing and restoring the Helen Spring Library. Original elements from the house’s use as a private residence are plainly visible, and the construction of a brand-new sanctuary received the 2005 American Institute of Architects Honor Award in the category of outstanding interiors. Incidentally, Richard Morris Hunt was a founding member of that very organization.

Lauren Weinberger, a longtime congregant of East End Temple, told me that the congregation had originally planned to build and move into their new sanctuary earlier than 2004. One night in 2001, they had a marathon meeting in which they finalized plans for the new space and hammered out every last detail. That night was September 10. Needless to say, contractors, city permits, and most importantly, emotional stamina and confidence were difficult to come by directly following 9/11. In a sense, the now-completed sanctuary serves as a monument to the refusal of New Yorkers to put their communal and spiritual lives on indefinite hiatus.

The sanctuary, flooded with light from a hidden skylight, appears larger than its actual physical size. Nearly every element of its design is meant to evoke Israel and the Tabernacle. The wall behind the bimah - the raised platform at the front of the sanctuary - is made of Jerusalem stone, with eighteen bronze prayer strips that resemble the paper prayer strips placed by worshipers in the Western Wall. The lectern is made of wood similar to the acacia (now endangered) used in the Biblical construction of the Tabernacle, with hand-holds built into the front to represent "portable nature." Features such as the L-shaped pew arrangement and low bimah make for a community-oriented synagogue experience. The design of the sanctuary was intended to be “non-hierarchical,” Lauren explained. Even the Ner Tamid - the lantern holding the ceremonial eternal light of God - is hung from a long beam extending from the center of the sanctuary, making it seem more accessible.

For me, however, the most striking feature of the sanctuary’s design is the ark doorway made from cast bronze. After hearing of a Buddhist tradition in which prayers are burnt in the crucible where a Temple bell is cast, the congregation decided to adapt the custom for their own Jewish practice. When casting the ark doors, congregants’ prayers were thrown into the crucible and are now part of the doors’ very substance. As for the design of the bronze itself, the doors are meant to feel “tactile,” with linen-like textures and a tree motif representing the Torah, often referred to as the “Tree of Life” in Jewish practice.

The sanctuary reflects the priorities of the congregation it houses. “We pride ourselves on being inclusive and welcoming as a community,” Lauren said proudly. East End Temple is home to a thriving religious school, members of New York’s LGBT community, and to this day, some of the original founders of Congregation El Emet. Some subsets of the congregation even have their own nicknames, like BEET: The Boomers of East End Temple (“a healthy empty-nesters community,” as Lauren describes it). Special events such as summer services in Stuyvesant Square and monthly Simchat Shabbat services, which feature music, comedy, and guest speakers draw healthy numbers of participants. The congregation is active in community organizations like Metro IAF-NY, and enjoys a genial relationship with nearby St. George’s Episcopal Church and Friends Seminary. “The best thing you can do is be a place people want to be at,” Lauren said of her synagogue. “It’s been a wonderful space.”

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East End Temple 1 Historic Site Synagogues Gramercy Stuyvesant Square
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More Historic Site nearby

Lost Gem
The Players Club 1 Private Clubs Historic Site undefined

The Players

The Players, an organization founded in the late Nineteenth Century to further the careers of talented actors by linking them with established patrons of the arts, is a place of considerable national historic, artistic, and dramatic importance. Though founded by, and for, a small group of primarily American Shakespearean Actors, today The Players serves over 700 active theater and film actors, television hosts, arts patrons, and businessmen and women. Although a private club, non-members are given access to this simply remarkable townhouse that serves as its home - guests are invited to the occasional theater production and lectures that are held here. Edwin Booth, the most famous American Shakespearean actor of his time, purchased the mansion at 15 Gramercy Park South and had it redesigned by famed architect Stanford White to house a monumental club and theater for actors and a residence for himself on the upper floors. The ornate chandeliers, wooden parquet floors, gilded ceiling wreaths, Tiffany Glass windows, open circular staircase, indoor stage, library, and dining room are lined with portraits of Edwin by John Singer Sargent and paintings of the faces of every distinguished member of the club throughout its history. From founding member Mark Twain, to Frank Sinatra, to Carroll Burnett, to Uma Thurman, the breadth of actors and theatrical personalities covering the old, intricately carved walls was awe inspiring. A particularly memorable painting was a full-length portrait of the late, celebrated theater patron Helen Hayes wearing a brilliant, crimson velvet gown. Hayes was the first female to be admitted in 1989. The building is still filled with many of the original decorations, objects, and pieces of furniture used by the founding members of the club: the simple wood “club tables” by the bar in the dining room; humidors and personalized drinking mugs for the famously heavy smokers and alcoholics of the old Shakespearean crew; and mosaic tiles carved with words of wisdom for the actors themselves. “Dear actors, ” reads one – “eat not onions, nor garlic, for we are to utter sweet breath. ” And another, a particularly revealing line from Shakespeare, “you shall not budge, you go not till I set you up a glass. ”And for the real history buffs – Edwin Booth had an older brother, John, another famous Shakespearean actor. The brothers disagreed and competed over everything, from their individual claim to particular theater venues to politics (Edwin was a Unionist, John a Confederate). They settled on a compromise to divide the country into two theatrical spheres for each to work in – Edwin in the North, John in the South. And as for their political disagreements, John Wilkes Booth assassinated President Abraham Lincoln in the Ford Theater on April 14, 1865. When we visited in late 2012, The Players was about to celebrate its 125th anniversary. After asking our tour guide, the knowledgeable assistant executive director of the Club, John McCormick, how he felt about his job, he responded “I get goose bumps every time I think about this site that I work in. ”

More places on 17th Street

Lost Gem
Shareen 1 Bridal Vintage undefined


Today, Shareen Mitchell is a bicoastal business owner, a sought-after entrepreneur with fourteen employees and a celebrity following. But no one would have guessed it eleven years ago, when Shareen was, in her own words, “broke, in debt, and selling at a flea market. ” That flea market booth soon grew into a 7, 000 square foot vintage warehouse in LA, and within a few years, Shareen had expanded to New York City. In spite of her success, Shareen’s location on West 17th Street is one of the best-kept secrets in Manhattan. Hidden away on the second floor of an old walk-up, the only sign of its existence is a red dress hanging from the fire escape, and sometimes—like the day I visited—not even that. Fortunately, a friendly employee from the salon next door pointed me in the right direction, but if I had not been in the know, I would have missed Shareen entirely. This secret location may seem like a bad business decision, but it is actually one of the keys to Shareen’s success. Her stores have always fostered a sense of exclusivity, and Shareen told me that her warehouse, especially in the early days, was not only the hottest vintage store in LA, but also a gathering place for a society of hip young women. “It was a crazy, fun secret, ” she told me. “No one knew where they were getting their vintage. ”Because there are no dressing rooms at Shareen—women change out in the open—both store locations have the same “no boys allowed” policy. But the resemblance between Shareen’s two stores ends there. While the LA warehouse is constantly buzzing with youthful energy, the New York location has a quiet, sophisticated feel that caters to a slightly older crowd. The reason for the difference, Shareen explained, is that by 2009, many of her original customers at the LA warehouse were now young professionals living in New York City. “They told me there was nothing like Shareen in the city, ” she said, “so I decided to test the waters. ” She opened a shop in a train station parking lot on Long Island, above an auto shop. “People like Ivanka Trump would get off the train, ” she told me, laughing, “and walk into this auto shop with their dogs and babies and everything. ” But after a while, the trip to Long Island became exhausting, and Shareen decided to open a location in the city. “It was kind of a secret, ” she said. “I had no money for a sign, so I put the red dress out on the fire escape. ”Though she did not put much effort into the store’s exterior, Shareen transformed the inside. The former apartment is now an elegant retail space, filled with ornate mirrors and old-fashioned couches, and yet it still manages to feel warm and welcoming. One large room is devoted entirely to wedding dresses, while another two rooms are filled with vintage clothing of all kinds, from evening gowns to 1950s prom dresses. When I asked Shareen about the bridal section, she told me that the store is in the process of transitioning. “A lot of my clients are starting to get married, ” she told me, “but they don’t want to look like traditional brides. ” These young women, many of whom get married in unorthodox venues—upstate farms, Brooklyn lofts, and Manhattan rooftops—are looking for unique dresses that will express their personalities. Over the past few years, the demand for these “indie wedding dresses” has grown so much that Shareen predicts that the store may soon be entirely bridal. “A year ago, we were half bridal and half vintage, and now it’s more like seventy-thirty, ” Shareen told me. “We’re double-booked on the weekends with brides. ”The New York location may be transitioning into bridal wear, but Shareen insisted that the store will not abandon its vintage roots. Along with her bridal collection, which is all under $2, 000, many of the wedding dresses for sale in the store are reworked vintage. Shareen added that her collection is designed to flatter all kinds of body types, to celebrate women rather than inhibit them. She always tells her brides, “I want to see you looking beautiful, not you in a beautiful dress. ”