New York Landmarks Conservancy
Common Bond

Fire at Central Synagogue, NYC

On Friday afternoon August 28, 1998, a five alarm fire -- allegedly started by a construction worker's torch -- nearly destroyed Central Synagogue in Midtown Manhattan. For three hours, 250 fire fighters and 45 trucks battled the blaze as clouds of smoke poured from the roof of the Moorish Revival building.

As the fire roared out of control, fire fighters shot torrents of water through stained glass windows, heavily damaging the stenciled walls and interior woodwork. Eventually the roof collapsed resulting in additional destruction. In the aftermath of the fire, the sanctuary walls were found to be structurally sound and the wooden ark, which holds the Torah scrolls, though marred, towered over the ruins.

New Yorkers of all faiths immediately responded with offers of emotional and financial support to assist the congregation in finding a location to hold services for the Jewish New Year. Rabbi Peter J. Rubinstein and the congregation have launched a multi-million dollar effort to rebuild and restore the synagogue.

Central Synagogue, built in 1870-72, remains a rare example of the opulent Moorish Revival style in American synagogue architecture. The architect, Henry Fernback (1829-1883), trained in Germany and came to New York in 18 49. Fernback's choice of the Moorish Revival was in keeping with the late 19th century taste for exotic styles.

Designated a New York City Landmark in 1966 and a National Historic Landmark in 1975, it is the oldest building in continuous use as a synagogue in the State of New York. The Reform congregation was founded in 1846 in Lower Manhattan.