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In the News

Synagogue Gets New Identity as Wine Bar

A soon-to-open Boerum Hill nightspot will give new meaning to "bar mitzvah."

That's because an upscale wine bar will open in April inside a deconsecrated synagogue and yeshiva on Atlantic Avenue.

Religious groups have long sought to capitalize on their appreciated real estate by selling off underutilized properties to developers, schools, and entrepreneurs. In Manhattan, New York University is now erecting a dorm at site ofthe former St. Ann's Church and Rectory on East 12th Street; and a condominium conversion is underway at the former Washington Square Methodist Church on West 4th Street.

The resulting conversions aren't just residential. Indeed, a slew of former houses of worship have been reincarnated as social halls, restaurants, lounges, and bars.

"A lot of churches and synagogues are divesting themselves of their investment portfolios," the chairman of Prudential Douglas EUiman's retail leasing and sales division. Faith Consolo, said. "If you have 100 churches, maybe you only need 50."

The owner of the yet-to-benamed Boerum Hill bar, Caio Dunson, 43, is transforming the interior into a sleek lounge, decorated with silver and black paint, and new stained glass windows. But the building's blond brick exterior — with its Hebrew script and Stars of David carvings from its former life as a synagogue — would remain intact, he said. "Architecturally, it's beautiful," Mr. Dunson, who plans to reside in a duplex apartment above the bar, said. "It's part ofthe history ofthe neighborhood, and I wouldn't feel right about doing anything to destroy it."

Mr. Dunson said there is nothing

sacrilegious about turning the former Talmud Torah Beth Jacob Joseph, which most recently housed an antique store, into a party venue. Legend has it that the mid-19th century structure housed a beer hall before it was converted to a synagogue in 1917. "It's the nature of New York," he told The New York Sun. "It changes. Places start as one thing, and become another, and this is just another example of that."

The director of cultural programming for a 19th century synagogue-turned-party-space on the Lower East Side, Al Orensanz, said it is unsurprising that churches and synagogues not being used as houses of worship are being turned into places to hold celebrations.

"These buildings are steeped in tradition. Thousands of people have congregated there over hundreds of years — so there's already an established context," Mr. Orensanz, of the Angel Orensanz Foundation for the Arts, said.

In addition to Angel Orensanz, there's an Episcopal church that became the legendary 1980s nightclub. Limelight — now the Avalon nightclub — on Sixth Avenue; and the aptly named Providence, where the bar was erected on what was once the altar of the Manhattan Baptist Church.

The 2-year-old Providence restaurant, lounge and nightclub — formerly Le Bar Bat — was deconsecrated in the 1960s to become a music studio. These days, partygoers at the West 57th Street hotspot can order a "Black Cherry Manhattan" martini where ministers once celebrated Mass, and can dance to DJ-spun hip-hop where the pews once stood.

"Churches and bars are both places for transcendence," the general manager of Providence, Mac McClelland, said. "Both use their design, their sound, and

their ceremony in order to take people away from their day-today lives."

As he downed a beer Tuesday night. Providence customer Frank Basso said an altar seemed a fitting place for a bar. "It reminds me of taking Communion," Mr. Basso, a 38-year-old construction worker, said — referring to the solemn Christian rite involving wine.

Some New Yorkers embrace the irony of dancing to hip-hop where church pews once stood, or ordering a vodka-tonic inside historic synagogue, others are more troubled by the idea.

"I'm a little uncomfortable going into a former synagogue that's now serving mai tais," the curator of a photography exhibit about converted churches and synagogues, Ellen Levitt, said. The show, entitled "From Synagogue to Church: Converted Houses of Worship," is on view at the Brooklyn Historical Society through February 11.

"I could see how members of a religious community wouldbe distressed at the idea of a synagogue that's being turned into a bar," the president ofthe Brooklyn Historical Society, Deborah Schwartz, said, referring to Mr. Dunson's wine bar. "But it's not necessarily a bad thing. In the long run, it would be much sadder to have the building torn down."

She added: "Buildings, like people and neighborhoods, are constantly changing, and there's nothing to prevent this building from — 20 years from now — becoming a synagogue again."

'Churches and bars

are hoth places for

transcendence. Both

take people away from

their day-to-day lives.'

 

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