With a great sense of respect and restraint, the lighting design for Temple Emanu-El, a prominent New York City synagogue located on Fifth Avenue overlooking Central Park, the adage “less is more” certainly holds true. The challenge for New York-based lighting firm Sachs Morgan Studio, noted for their theatrical lighting work, was to celebrate the architecturally significant features of the building, originally designed in 1927. This included an ornate polychrome Lombardian ceiling with Gustavino tiles, and stained glass windows (see image gallery).

To begin, the client, along with the architect, New York City firm Beyer Blinder Belle, had determined that the visual focus of the space needed to remain on the Bimah—the podium area at the front of the synagogue from where the Torahs are read—and the Ark—the enclosed niche which houses the Torahs (see image gallery). Additionally, as the lighting designers explain, ‘no intrusive objects or instruments could be added to the space, and all the lighting fixtures had to be easy to access and maintain.' The solution then “illuminates the boundaries of the space, highlights the historic features, and provides ample lighting for modern day use.”

At the front of the sanctuary, an arch frames the Bimah. To illuminate the area, the lighting designers installed two motorized lighting battens at the top of the arch—70 feet above the Bimah. The battens are fitted with 750W theatrical PAR downlights, and can be lowered to within four feet of the Bimah floor for maintenance. Above the Bimah and Ark is the choir area. Here the designers created a fadeout effect to highlight the choir's blue ceiling (see image gallery). Using compact fluorescent fixtures the designers front lit, from the bottom, a theatrical scrim, while ceiling uplights from behind are allowed to show through at the top of the scrim.

A series of three stained glass windows, each 33-feet-tall, line both sidewalls of the sanctuary. Halogen MR16 lamps are discretely located at the base of each window and project light from one side of the space to the ceiling and walls on the opposite side—approximately 85 feet. To recreate the feeling of daylight for one of the stained glass windows that had been “blacked-out” due to exterior construction, the window was backlit with light pipes outfitted with metal halide sources (right). This window is only electrically illuminated when the other stained glass windows are naturally illuminated by daylight.

Transitioning older spaces to adhere to current-day light levels is often a situation encountered on preservation projects. To provide illumination to seated congregants, light was originally projected through tiny holes in the ceiling. Chandeliers were not allowed, as they were deemed “intrusive objects.” By increasing the overall light levels via lamp selection, the designers were able to meet contemporary lighting requirements without adding new ceiling slots or visible fixtures. A testament to the considered and thoughtful use of lighting in the renovation of this historic structure, many congregants remarked that it was like seeing the space for the first time, unaware of the extraordinary architectural details surrounding them. A|L

jury comments

The lighting responds to an extraordinary space with an acute sense of appropriateness. | Celebrates the spectacle of light. | Layering of light is well done.


Project Location: New York Architect: Beyer Blinder Belle Architects and Planners, New York Consulting Architect: James Rhodes Preservation Design, Croton-on-Hudson, New York Lighting Designer: Sachs Morgan Studio, New York Photographers: Samuel Morgan Photography, New York Project Size: 22,654 square feet Watts Per Square Foot: 2.36 Lighting Installation Cost: $2.5 million Manufacturers: Electronic Theater Controls (ETC); Lighting Services Inc.; Litemakers; TIR Systems