Leap of Faith

Leap of Faith

A temporary lighting solution becomes a permanent upgrade for this Manhattan synagogue

By Samantha Schwirck

We’ve all seen it. Quick fixes—one more coat of paint, some duct tape “just for now”—that don’t address the root cause of a problem, and ultimately lead to more work. But every so often, the unexpected happens, and a temporary solution becomes more than just a band aid.

Such was the case with the recent lighting retrofit at the Park Avenue Synagogue in Manhattan, which first opened its doors in 1927. One of the last synagogues built in the Moorish-Revival style, the space is punctuated by ornate light fixtures, high ceilings and Adolph Gottlieb stained-glass windows.

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In 2019, the synagogue called upon lighting production design company Nimblist (Lancaster, PA) to stage a one-day re-dedication event that would pay tribute to the history of the congregation while also celebrating the opening of its renovated and expanded space. “The event was held in the historical sanctuary, which had not been remodeled, so a key element of the project/design was to create a transformation from the past [gas light] to the present,” says Scott Schecter, VP of production for Nimblist.

Synagogue leaders envisioned starting the ceremony with dim, amber-hued light to emulate the glow of oil lamps from its early years, then evolving throughout the ceremony to more dynamic, colorful lighting to represent modern times. The client also wanted the event to be theatrical instead of solemn, with music and video screens—and for the project to be completed on a timeline that wouldn’t interrupt the synagogue’s scheduled services. “We had 48 hours to balance a traditional temporary event installation and apply it on top of regular programming,” Schecter recalls.

Accomplishing the desired effect would require a variety of fixtures, the ability to create both white light and saturated colors and, perhaps most importantly, some type of network infrastructure. “At the initial site visit, we discovered that the AV team had no control of the existing house lighting system. Lights were switched on and off from a breaker box,” Schecter says. “The lack of time for setup combined with the need to control the lighting in the space made us look outside of the typical entertainment lighting tools. There was no realistic way to install a temporary house system with no rigging available.”

Accomplishing the desired effect would require a variety of fixtures, the ability to create both white light and saturated colors and, perhaps most importantly, some type of network infrastructure. “At the initial site visit, we discovered that the AV team had no control of the existing house lighting system. Lights were switched on and off from a breaker box,” Schecter says. “The lack of time for setup combined with the need to control the lighting in the space made us look outside of the typical entertainment lighting tools. There was no realistic way to install a temporary house system with no rigging available.”

For the final install, Nimblist relamped every fixture in the sanctuary with 221 LED bulbs. PAR38 lamps with beam angles ranging from 10 to 60 deg were used in under-balcony and high-ceiling fixtures; omni A-lamps were used in lanterns and chandeliers; and PAR30 lamps with 15-deg beam angles were used in the loft curtain. In addition, eight temporary Source Four LED fixtures (ETC) were added to illuminate the entrance, as well as 24 Qolorpoint RGBW wireless LED uplights (City Theatrical) around the perimeter of the sanctuary to enhance architectural elements.

The lamps are controlled by the Ketra app, as well as a GrandMA console for the added entertainment lighting, and programming and installation were completed in just two days. Schecter credits integration experts from Lutron for help navigating the process, determining the right control solutions, and programming the bulbs; members of the Nimblist team that worked remotely to execute bench testing; and the synagogue’s lead integrator, who worked through IT needs to ensure all the systems worked together. “Two days later, we sat down with the app and it was lighting magic,” Schecter says.

“The beautiful and historical Schul was the canvas, and we needed to light and control the entire space, not just the stage,” Schecter says. “By replacing the existing lamps, we were able to gain a level of control that would have been impossible to achieve through a temporary rental system. The existing architecture drove the look and feel of the event, with lighting bringing warmth and joy to the space in a way that had never been done before, while celebrating the amazing, historical architecture.”

Beyond the re-dedication event, the custom controls offer instant access to preprogrammed lighting scenes for every service. When the scenes aren’t specific enough, synagogue leadership has full programming access via the app, allowing for on-the-fly lighting adjustments to complement the music and the message of each service.

After a successful re-dedication event, the synagogue and Nimblist carried out a second phase of lighting updates, replacing existing track and fixtures in time for the September 2020 high holidays. “The old track was coming out of the wall and the old fixtures were ballasted and mounted 90 deg in a way that their weight wasn’t properly supported, creating a safety issue,” Schecter says.

An overhead track with S38 track heads was installed high above the stage area to highlight the surrounding architecture, bringing the total new lamp count to 245. Existing front-of-house key lights were also upgraded to tunable fixtures during the second phase, and the Qolorpoint package was purchased for use in the sanctuary, and to become part of the lighting inventory for event rentals in the new lower-level function spaces.

In this case, the band-aid solution—turning off all the existing lights, bringing in temporary lighting and orchestrating a one-day event—could have cost just as much as it did to install and program the Ketra solution. Plus, the schedule would have been nearly impossible to achieve, adds Nimblist Founder and CEO Spike Brant. “In the end, we left something permanent; we made the place better,” Brant says. “That’s a really cool feeling—a convergence of so many successes.”

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Samantha Schwirck

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