FREE SYNAGOGUE OF FLUSHING

by Kevin Walsh

The pace of change in Flushing, Queens has only accelerated in the past 30 years, as its venerable Victorian age buildings have mostly been razed. But concentrated at Kissena Boulevard and Sanford Avenue are a number of amazing buildings constructed decades ago and in one case, over a century and a half ago.

Flushing is no longer thought of as heavily Jewish — things have changed as immigrants from Asia have shaped the area the last 20 to 30 years — so it’s a bit surprising to find this imposing, Corinthian-columned edifice, the Free Synagogue of Flushing, at Kissena and Sanford.

The temple was founded in 1917 by the Hebrew Women’s Aid Society and was named the Free Synagogue because it followed the principles of the first “free” synagogue, the Stephen Wise Free Synagogue in Manhattan. The principles included freedom of  religious philosophy, seating positions (some synagogues separate men and women), equality of men and women in participation and leadership, and a general liberal philosophy in all matters.

An inscription from the Book of Isaiah is seen on the pediment above the entrance.

The original synagogue building was a stately pillared mansion which stood on the corner of the lot, designed by the noted architectural firm of McKim, Mead & White in a classical-revival style popular in the 1880s. This mansion was built around the bones of an old hunting lodge, which indicates the character of Flushing in the early nineteenth century. In 1925, the synagogue membership had grown so large that a new sanctuary had to be built. To make way for the larger sanctuary, the congregation decided to move the White building to the Sanford Avenue frontage of the synagogue and use it for offices and classrooms. The new neo-classical building, designed by architect Maurice Courland [completed in 1929], features a massive portico supported by four Ionic pillars. Ascending the stately steps, one reaches the magnificent sanctuary, where dark green pilasters support brackets upon which rest the enormous dome. Stained glass windows on all four walls, with glass crafted in Czechoslovakia, bathe the sanctuary in rich, radiant colors.

The windows depict Noah’s Ark, the lions of Judah, great swirls of leaves and vines and delicate flowers symbolizing Sukkot, and the two hands of the priestly blessing, which many know as Spock’s “Live Long and Prosper” symbol from Star Trek. In the center of the domed ceiling that covers the entire sanctuary is a smaller stained-glass dome designed around a Star of David. –– Free Synagogue of Flushing

Next door on Sanford Avenue is the building where the synagogue’s services were originally held, the Lindley Murray Hoffman Mansion. Originally constructed around 1845, when much of Flushing was still farms and fields, this is one of the last freestanding mansion buildings in Flushing. After several years as the Windsor School, it is once again owned by the synagogue.

And that’s not all! Around the corner on Main Street is Flushing’s main post office. A look inside reveals fascinating painted scenes depicting Queens in the colonial era and 19th Century.

Check out the ForgottenBook, take a look at the gift shop, and as always, “comment…as you see fit.”

12/10/19

4 comments

MSM December 12, 2019 - 1:58 pm

Once upon a time FSF also had a lovely community theatre group called the Free Synagogue Of Flushing Community Theatre Group. They produced many productions for 41 years before ending their partnership. Some of the board members decided to carry on the tradition as the Royal Star Theatre in Jamaica Estates: http://www.fsfctg.org/fsfctg.htm.

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Michaek December 15, 2019 - 7:53 am

any information on the interior(s)?

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Joshua D January 9, 2020 - 8:52 am

I grew up at Free Synagogue and was there until the late 2000’s when there was a split in the congregation (there was an earlier split in the 1950’s or 60’s which created Temple Beth Sholom in Bayside). It so happened that we had just moved to the Bronx at the same time, and ended up joining the synagogue on City Island. I still have fond memories of the services in the beautiful sanctuary (with stained glass windows and dome), with an excellent variety of worship music with cantor, choir and organ, as well as being active in the religious school. Thanks for featuring it Kevin!

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Brian D April 11, 2020 - 4:01 pm

Thanks so much for featuring a profile of FSF. Definitely a reminder of a once thriving Jewish community in Flushing. FSF is open and actively conducting services. The Synagogue began construction in 1926 and opened its doors in 1927 (not 1929 as reported above). The White Building next door, one of the last 19th Century mansions in Queens – has been attributed to the noted architecture firm of McKim Mead & White but there is no evidence substantiating that claim.

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