Several Eras End at One Lower East Side Building

The collapse and demolition in 2006 of the First Roumanian-American Congregation synagogue at 89 Rivington Street — the “cantors’ Carnegie Hall” — seemed to have eradicated almost every trace of what was once a large and vibrant Jewish community.

Building Blocks

How the city looks and feels — and why it got that way.

But it had not. There is a remarkable vestige of the First Roumanian-American Congregation at 70 Hester Street, between Allen and Orchard Streets. It is the synagogue that the congregation built in 1860 and expanded as its membership grew, before moving to the much larger sanctuary on Rivington Street.

The narrow, two-story space still has a U-shaped women’s gallery and a stained-glass window over the wall on which the ark was situated. Two octagonal skylights dimly enhance what little daylight reaches the space through vaguely Moorish arched windows. Gas jets poke out of the walls. Scraps of prayer books still turn up in crevices.

Last used for worship in the 19th century, the space housed a still during Prohibition and a raincoat and shower-curtain factory after World War II. In 1967, the artists Thomas Nozkowski and Joyce Robins moved in. They made their paintings and sculptures there. They raised their son there. And they lived much of their lives there until June, when they were told to get out in 30 days. With the help of a lawyer, they won a stay of eviction until the end of the year.

Through Brown Harris Stevens, 70 Hester Street was sold Friday. The asking price was $3,999,999. A spokeswoman for the brokerage did not identify the buyer or divulge the purchase price.

The existing building has roughly 4,000 square feet of space, but zoning rules would permit an 11,288-square-foot structure on the lot, which “makes this desirable for a developer,” the Web listing said. “But for the buyer who wants to renovate and own a piece of significant New York history, this dramatic synagogue is worth the restoration,” the listing continued. Whether the buyer considers it a tear-down or a fixer-upper is a mystery at the moment.

This much is certain: the Nozkowski-Robins association with 70 Hester is ending after 45 years. So is another chapter in the Bohemian era of the Lower East Side. The couple, now 68, met as students at Cooper Union. They were looking for a 2,000-square-foot loft for $100 a month. That was once a realistic aspiration.

On the day after their wedding in May 1967, they spied a “For Rent” sign at 70 Hester, owned by Sarah Feifer, an old-fashioned leftist. “The only newspaper she read was The Daily Worker,” Mr. Nozkowski said. Harry Snyder ran a fabric store on the main floor, but the former sanctuary upstairs had been vacant since the factory closed, leaving a floor full of grommets. Yet Ms. Robins, who had grown up in an Orthodox Jewish family, said she discerned something “very genial and obviously special” about the place.

In exchange for a few months of rent-free tenancy, the couple spent about $3,000 and a lot of elbow grease to replace windows, upgrade electricity and add plumbing. (From each according to his ability, to each according to his needs.) The space was certified habitable under the city’s artist-in-residence program.

Warm, it wasn’t. When the couple decided to have a child, they built a small bedroom so there would be one easily heated space in the loft, which had only a potbellied stove in early years. “We spent winter nights with a stolen shopping cart out looking for wood,” Mr. Nozkowski recalled.

Their son, Casimir Nozkowski, now 36, attended Public School 124 on Division Street. You’d think a loft would be an ideal place to bring pals. It was — to a point. “The pro was that there was a lot of floor area,” the younger Mr. Nozkowski allowed. “The con was that everything was covered in art; not just on the walls, but mounted on the floor and hanging from the ceiling. You were so easily backing into a ceramic piece of sculpture.”

Casimir Nozkowski is a writer, director and video artist. He is working on a documentary about his family’s last days at 70 Hester, remembering how he used to spend evenings enveloped in a couch from which he could watch a television set and, a few feet away, his father painting at his easel. Upstairs, in the women’s gallery, his mother would be working on her paintings and sculptures. Music — often soul music — filled the space, which was ablaze in incandescent light.

When Casimir left for college, his parents moved their primary residence to High Falls, N.Y. In 1992, their lease expired at 70 Hester. They have been month-to-month tenants ever since, paying a rent of $1,100. They don’t, in other words, expect a violin accompaniment. “We weren’t so unrealistic as to think this wouldn’t one day happen,” Mr. Nozkowski said. “But it’s a shock when it does.”

“I was very conscious of the spiritual qualities of the space,” he said.

His son remembers something else: having a hard time going to sleep on occasion, looking out at Hester Street through three high Moorish arches. “It’s a little creepy,” he said. “You’re staring at these huge windows that have a vibe like ghosts are passing through.”

The real estate listing said, “Delivered vacant.” One wonders.

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