Brooklyn, one building at a time.
Name: Former private house, now Beth Shalom Hebrew Congregation
Address: 730 Willoughby Avenue
Cross Streets: Marcus Garvey Blvd. and Lewis Avenue
Neighborhood: Bedford Stuyvesant
Year Built: Unknown, probably 1880s
Architectural Style: Second Empire
Architect: Unknown, perhaps Theobald Engelhardt
The story: A recent journey up Willoughby Avenue, in Bedford Stuyvesant going towards Bushwick, turned up a treasure trove of forgotten architecture. During the mid to late 19th century, this was once a very desirable part of the Eastern District, home to mostly German Americans, who had come to this country to prosper, and as a group, did exceedingly well.
This house is one of only two surviving mansions on this side of the street, on this block. It was probably built by its first owner, William Auer, a well-to-do German-born contractor and builder. He was very well-known here in the Eastern District as a builder of many of the area’s largest breweries, although he also built other important buildings, such as the Manufacturer’s Trust Building, the Batterman Department Store on Broadway, and the Keap Street Temple, all in the Williamsburg-Bushwick area. He worked often with Theobald Engelhardt, a prolific German American architect, so it’s very likely that Englehardt designed this house; there are other houses of this style and design in his very large portfolio.
When he died, in 1910, at the age of 74, William Auer left a son, who took over the business, and two daughters. One, interestingly, literally married the boy next door, as seen in the photo below, which I’ll go into when I feature that house as a BOTD. Sadly, too, the obituary column with Mr. Auer also listed a man named Isador Mock, who had also died. It was mentioned that he and William Auer were best friends, and had come to the United States together as children, and had been close their entire lives. It was though that Mr. Mock lost the will to live after Auer and two other close friends all died within weeks of each other.
The house stayed in the family until at least 1916, when one of the Auer girls got married, but by 1929, the building was now home to a branch of Young Israel of Williamsburg, which added a large addition in the back for a gymnasium, and opened as a club/meeting hall that had separate clubs for both boys and girls. The house belonged to Young Israel until 1968, when Rabbi Levi Ben Levy relocated his congregation here from another location in Bedford Stuyvesant. Rabbi Levy lead one of the largest congregations of black Jews in New York, since having founded his Beth Shalom congregation in his Queens apartment, back in 1967. Rabbi Levy was raised up to Chief Rabbi, before passing away in the 1990s. He appointed one of his sons, Sholomo, to replace him as Rabbi. The building still is home to this congregation of black Israelites, as they call themselves. It’s a proud traditional community of people, many of whom have been Jews for many generations, as well as more recent converts. GMAP