The Eli M Black Lifelong Learning Center

New York
Photo © Frank Oudeman
Photo © Frank Oudeman
Photo © Frank Oudeman
Photo © Frank Oudeman
Photo © Frank Oudeman
Photo © Frank Oudeman
MBB Architects

MBB (Murphy Burnham and Buttrick Architects) has reconstructed a seven-story townhouse on Manhattan’s Upper East Side to serve as a learning center for the Park Avenue Synagogue community.

The elegant and highly functional solution creates a bright, modern setting behind the building’s landmark façade, with extensive use of glass and wood as well as integrated designed in collaboration with Amy Reichert, a Chicago-based designer of Judaica. The expansion of learning spaces for the Conservative congregation, which has grown from about 1,400 member families to 1,700 over the last decade, accommodates growth in its educational, cultural and spiritual offerings for children, teens, adults and elderly members.

A full gut renovation of the 17,400-square-foot, 1912 Neo-Renaissance building—originally designed by Arthur C. Jackson and most recently the home of an independent school—realigns the floor levels and interior circulation for its new uses. Large and small classrooms and meeting halls, a chapel, and a rooftop terrace and garden present highly flexible, multi-use spaces with oak wood detailing and oak cabinets for storage of supplies as well as furniture sets of different scales. The building hosts morning, afternoon and evening classes, carefully choreographed to accommodate all ages and users.

From its spacious lobby with a custom layered- wall installation, visitors pass through full-height glass and metal partitions to a central stairway with glass guardrails, which opens to each level and is flooded with daylight from a large skylight above. Open and inviting, the circulation spine reinforces a sense of community and, with its thematic installations at each mid-landing of stained-glass windows created for the synagogue in 1954 by artist Adolph Gottlieb, alludes to congregation’s rich history. A wood ceiling element wraps from the lobby into the stairs and to the chapel on the second floor, drawing visitors within.
Along one side of the hallways on each floor are art friezes with Reichert’s selections of some 200 artworks inspired by the Torah, which draw from historic and modern masterpieces organized by themes related to each book of the text. The values of the synagogue are also integrated in the translucent resin panels embedded with fabric in the lobby, recalling the traditional tallit, or prayer shawl. Custom liturgical furnishings include a new ark and lectern in the chapel, which are designed in a modern language that references geometric motifs from the synagogue’s main sanctuary on 87th Street.

Designed for easy navigation and to make maximum use of the new space to serve diverse users of all ages, the new learning center is fully accessible. Doorposts hold two mezuzahs each, at different heights, accessible for younger occupants and wheelchair users. Learning takes place indoors and also outdoors on two terrace areas. A large basement with resilient finishes and a colorful acoustic soffit surround offers a place for young children to play. New restrooms and a pantry are located within easy reach, and administrative offices are embedded in the building’s upper floors to support the educational mission and programs.

Using highly resilient materials and high-efficiency, green building systems, the renovated building is durable, sustainable and has low operating costs. Careful use of acoustic materials adds to the sense of refuge and comfort within, and WiFi and audiovisual systems are seamlessly integrated into the spaces.
Resulting from a four-year capital campaign, the Eli M. Black Lifelong Learning Center is the first component of a multiphase building program that will allow the Park Avenue Synagogue to launch “new program initiatives, a re-envisioned curriculum in its Congregational School, and a fresh take on familiar worship events,” says Beryl Chernov, the synagogue’s executive director. The congregation celebrated its opening in October 2017.

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