Historic London Synagogue Fights to Stay Out of the Shadows

The 320-year-old Bevis Marks Synagogue claims that two new proposed office towers would block its sunlight and add to the sense of enclosure amid the skyscrapers of the financial district.

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LONDON — Rabbi Shalom Morris picked his way through a steel scaffold that construction workers were noisily dismantling as he showed a visitor around his 320-year-old synagogue, Bevis Marks. When the renovation is finished, there will be a new visitors center off the snug courtyard outside the building.

But Rabbi Morris was less preoccupied with his own construction project than two others for which developers are seeking approval next door. Both are office towers — 20 and 48 stories, respectively — and if they are built, he said, they would leave one of London’s most venerable houses of worship in near-permanent twilight.

“If this was next to St. Paul’s Cathedral, it wouldn’t happen,” said Rabbi Morris, 41, a former New Yorker who has overseen the synagogue, the oldest in Britain, for six years. “They’re willing, at best, to roll the dice and, at worst, to do lasting harm.”

It’s not that the rabbi has it in for all skyscrapers. Bevis Marks already nestles in a glass and steel forest of thrusting towers, many with goofy nicknames — the Gherkin, the Walkie Talkie, the Cheesegrater — which have transformed London’s financial district, known as the City, into a kind of Legoland version of Chicago.

But Rabbi Morris claims that these latest towers, to the immediate east and south of Bevis Marks, would be a “tipping point,” blocking the already precious London sunlight that now streams through its arched windows, from morning well into the afternoon. The synagogue’s landmark status limits it from augmenting its artificial light, which is supplied by 1920s sconces affixed to its supporting pillars.

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Rabbi Shalom Morris, a former New Yorker, has overseen the synagogue, the oldest in Britain, for six years. Credit…Andrew Testa for The New York Times

“There’s this incredible serenity in the courtyard that prepares you for entering the synagogue,” Rabbi Morris said. “But when you have 50 stories peering down on you, putting you in the shadows, that experience is lost.”

That assertion is open to debate: The developers have commissioned studies that they say show there would be very little loss of sunlight. The synagogue has competing studies that show there would be a lot. But there’s no dispute that Bevis Marks has long been hemmed in by the world of commerce that grew up around it — and a pair of looming skyscrapers would add to the sense of enclosure.

Now ringed by lower-rise office buildings and reached through an easy-to-miss stone archway, the reddish brick synagogue was built in 1701 to blend in with its surroundings, in a classical style influenced by Christopher Wren, the architect of St. Paul’s.

Its first worshipers were Jews from Portugal and Spain who fled the Inquisition and were allowed by Oliver Cromwell in 1657 to practice their faith in England. The congregation today is a mix of descendants of those Sephardic Jews and a scattering of office workers who drop by for morning prayers.

Tensions over tall buildings, familiar to New Yorkers chafing at luxury skyscrapers just south of Central Park, are nothing new in London. That’s particularly true in the City, which dates to London’s Roman origins and has dozens of historically significant buildings, from the Guildhall to the Bank of England.

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High-rise building near the Bevis Marks Synagogue in the City of London. Credit…Andrew Testa for The New York Times

The deep symbolism of Bevis Marks to London’s Jewish community, however, makes this more than an ordinary dust-up between developers and the custodians of a landmark site.

“Religious buildings need to be treated with particular care,” said Stephen Graham, a professor of cities and society at Newcastle University. “Light is an essential part of the spiritual experience. It’s unthinkable that a cathedral would be confronted with this kind of challenge, so why should a synagogue?”

The two towers under scrutiny are rather modest by the flamboyant standards of some City skyscrapers. They are in different stages of a long review process, but both could be approved by the end of the year.

Welput, a property fund that is developing the taller one, at 31 Bury Street, declined to comment on how its building would affect the synagogue because it was in a public consultation period. Merchant Land, the developer of the other, at 33 Creechurch Lane, said studies showed that its building would have no significant negative impact and that it had worked with the synagogue since 2017 to try to assuage its concerns about daylight.

“Merchant Land recognizes that not all the synagogue’s objections have been resolved to their satisfaction,” it said in a statement, adding that it was “committed to building a positive relationship based on accommodating each other’s needs.”

Rabbi Morris has rallied his several hundred congregants to submit objections to the projects. With antisemitism surging in Europe and the United States — and infecting Britain’s political discourse, particularly in the ranks of the Labour Party — he and other backers of Bevis Marks argue that the city’s planners should go the extra mile to protect it.

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Workers renovate the synagogue. Credit…Andrew Testa for The New York Times

“It makes the preservation of this place all the more important,” said Sir Michael Bear, a former Lord Mayor of London who is Jewish and whose daughter was married in Bevis Marks. “What is happening here is a casualty of a flawed planning process.”

Mr. Bear, an engineer and developer who built the sprawling Spitalfields market in East London, said he believed there was a good chance that one or both of the projects would be approved. There was a tremendous push, he said, to approve new office towers to demonstrate that the city had rebounded after Brexit and the coronavirus pandemic. The paradox is that the pandemic has raised lingering questions about the future of the workplace and who will fill these giant buildings.

Even now, with much of London returning to a normal bustle, the City remains quiet, many of its towers still mostly deserted. But the pounding of pile-drivers and jackhammers echoes through the streets, as more skyscrapers join them.

Bevis Marks angered some of its congregants in 2018 when it urged them to object to a third proposed tower nearby on the same grounds, but then abruptly withdrew its opposition after the developer agreed to donate an undisclosed amount of money to help build the visitors center. Rabbi Morris now says the decision to cut a deal was a mistake.

The 56-story wedge-shaped tower, nicknamed Cheesegrater 2, was approved but has not yet been built. The synagogue ended up financing the visitors center from other sources, including a grant of 2.8 million pounds, or $3.8 million, from the National Lottery Heritage Fund, which disburses funds raised through the lottery to projects that preserve the nation’s heritage.

Prince Charles is a patron of the center, which the rabbi says will exhibit relics from the synagogue’s collection, including ceremonial silver and vestments. Charles has never been shy about wading into London development issues (he once famously described a proposed modernist extension to the National Gallery as a “monstrous carbuncle on the face of a much loved and elegant friend”). But he has yet to get involved in this dispute.

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Bevis Marks is tucked amid a crowd of tall buildings in the City of London.Credit…Andrew Testa for The New York Times

The City of London Corporation, which will decide on the new towers, declined to comment, as did London’s mayor, Sadiq Khan. Mr. Khan has periodically used his powers to try to block projects, including the Tulip, a bulbous observation tower proposed to stand next to the Gherkin.

Professor Graham, whose book “Vertical” explores the impulse to build upward, said the pressure to approve towers in London would persist because of the misbegotten belief that “to be a global city, you have to have a New York-style skyline.” In this case, he said, it has led to a fascination with “toylike, identifiable towers” that stand in stark contrast to the classic, Wren-like aesthetic of the Bevis Marks synagogue.

“We recognize that the city wants to develop in a certain way,” said Rabbi Morris, as he strolled past the Gherkin, craning his neck skyward. “But there’s a tone deafness to the implications of this.”

Anna Joyce contributed reporting

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