Places that Matter

Angel Orensanz Foundation Center for the Arts

Angel Orensanz Foundation, photo by Elena Martinez
Angel Orensanz Foundation, photo by Elena Martinez
Art, concert & performance space in a historic synagogue building
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Angel Orensanz Foundation Center for the Arts is an art, concert and performance space established in 1992 by a group of artists who were inspired by the work of sculptor Angel Orensanz.

The building on Norfolk Street grew out of the 19th century religious reformation of Germany. At this time many German and German Jews immigrated to the United States and many settled in the Lower East Side, including workers, intellectuals, social activists, and businessmen. They started factories, theaters, and cafes and houses of worship, including this one called Anshe Chesed (The People of Loving Kindness) on Norfolk. The Jews who patronized the space brought with them the idea of the Jewish Reform movement from Germany. They felt that they were making Judaism simpler and inclusive to all as well as making it relevant to civic, political, and cultural affairs.  For instance the congregation of Anshe Chesed launched letter writing drives and lobbied Congress on different issues.  Anshe Chesed was the first synagogue built in the U.S. that embodied the tenets of Reform Judaism—the pulpit faced the congregation, the prominent use of an organ and instrumental music, and they used German for the services.  

The neo-Gothic building that houses the Foundatin was designed in 1849 by Berlin-born architect Alexander Saeltzer.  His design was inspired by the Cathedral of Cologne and the Friedrichwerdesche Kirche in Berlin.  In fact the windows of the façade reproduced the windows of Cologne and of the temple in the Mitte.  From the 1880s to the end of the first World War the synagogue passed from one congregation to another during which time changes were also made to the structure. The pulpit changed positions and the organ was removed.  Services were returned to their traditional length and conducted in Hebrew. The synagogue was used by many Orthodox Jews who had recently immigrated to the neighborhood, and they changed the congregation's name to Anshe Slonin (The People of Slonin, a city in Belarussia).

Religious services ceased in 1974. The building was bought by developers, but nothing came of the purchase. The windows were boarded up, and items from inside were stolen. In 1986, Angel Orensanz bought the building for use as a studio, but later decided to make it a center for education and culture in New York.

Angel Orensanz, educated in Barcelona and Paris, opened his studio in New York in the early 1980's after working with several prominent architects, including Marcel Breuer, Martin Gelber and John Portman. Orensanz developed major installation concepts for environmental shows such as Holland Park, London; Red Square, Moscow; Roppongi-Park and Senso-ji, Tokyo; the Brandenburg Gate in Berlin; and ABC Playground (Houston St.), New York. Since the early 1990's he has developed a prolific body of work in performance, conceptual art and video.

Recently the building has been used by a Reform congregation, the Shul of New York, which meets for regular Sabbath services. Cultural events are still presented there.