Jewish Heritage Report
Issue No. 1 / March 1997
American Synagogue Restoration Report

Washington Symposium and Exhibition Highlight Restoration and Adaptive Reuse of American Synagogues

On February 20, 1997, a symposium was held at the newly renovated and opened District of Columbia Jewish Community Center. The Center, which was completed in 1926, was sold to the city in 1968. The proceeds were used to build the Jewish Community Center of Greater Washington in Rockville, Maryland. The move gave official status to the flight of the capital's Jews to the suburbs. Recent demographic trends, however, have brought Jews (especially younger Jews) back into Washington.. The Center, which had been empty since 1984, was repurchased from the city and restored. To celebrate this event, the first exhibition mounted in the new Ann Loeb Bronfman Gallery entitled "Urban Diaspora: Reclaiming Space" (curated by Alison Clarick Gottsegen), profiles seven diverse preservation projects concerning American Jewish sites.

In conjunction with the exhibition, a day-long symposium entitled "Sacred Spaces: Preserve or Abandon" was organized by the DCJCC and the National Building Museum. For the first time in many years, leading scholars, architects and activists from around the country were brought together to discuss the issues confronting the preservation of Jewish spaces in the United States, and various projects now underway.

It is hoped that the many fascinating and informative presentations will make their way into print in the near future. In the meantime, Jewish Heritage Report presents the following update (in two parts) on American Jewish sites -- many of which are featured in the DCJCC exhibit and/or were discussed at the symposium.

Speakers at the conference: David Abramson, A.I.A, restoration architect of Oheb Shalom project (Newark); Laura Cohen Apelbaum, Lillian & Albert Small Jewish Museum (Wash., DC); Marilyn Chiat, Center for the Documentation and Preservation of Places of Worship (Minneapolis); Diane Cohen, Partners for Sacred Places (Philadelphia); Bernard Fishman, Jewish Historical Society of Maryland (Baltimore); Susan Hoffman Fishman, First Synagogue Project, Charter Oak Cultural Center (Hartford, CT); Tom Freudenheim, YIVO Institute for Jewish Reseach (NY); David Glater, Vilna Center for Jewish Heritage (Boston); Samuel Gruber, Jewish Heritage Research Center (Syracuse); Macy Hart, Museum of the Southern Jewish Experience (Jackson, MS); David Kaufman, Jewish Theological Seminary (New York); Richard Seldin, American Museum of the Moving Image (NY); Ellen Smith, American Jewish Historcial Society (Waltham, MA) and Amy Waterman, The Eldridge Street Project (NY).

(The editors thank Alison Clarick Gottsegen for her help in compiling this report).

San Francisco, California
Ohabai Shalom, known as the Bush Street Synagogue, is one of the oldest synagogues in the western United States, and one of the few architecturally noteworthy survivors of the San Francisco earthquake of 1906. Designed by local architect Moses J. Lyon and built in 1895, the building served its congregation until 1934, when it was sold for use as a Japanese Zen Buddhist temple and Japanese game club. The building sits in the center of San Francisco's Japantown. It's noteworthy redwood facade incorporates Venetian, Moorish, and Romanesque elements. The distinctive minaret-like twin towers were already missing by 1916.

The San Francisco Redevelopment Agency Commission obtained the property in 1975, and sincethat time a number of (unsuccessful) efforts to restore or reuse the building have been announced. In 1987, the Redevelopment Agency Commission selected a developer, one of three who had submitted proposals, to begin lengthy negotiations for acquisition of the synagogue. The project that finally emerged was for the Bush Street Synagogue Cultural Center. It was to provide a permanent home for the Holocaust Center of Northern California and the Western Jewish History Center, along with a performing arts space in the synagogue's sanctuary.

In 1992, the National Trust for Historic Preservation approved a $150,000 loan to the project to help launch a campaign to raise $6 million for the purchase, rehabilitation, and restoration of the existing building, as well as for new construction on the adjacent site at the corner of Bush and Laguna. In 1993, the developers claimed that fund raising was slow because prospective donors felt the project could not succeed in the stipulated district and suggested moving the front portion of the synagogue building, to the Civic Center area. In the meantime, the Redevelopment Agency terminated the agreement with this developer citing failure to meet the performance schedule. Now there is a dispute between proponents of two plans for the site. Architect Felix Warburg still hopes to faithfully restore the space as a performing arts center, while the Japanese American Religious Federation plans to create new housing for Japanese seniors citizens in the building.

Los Angeles, California
Efforts continue to save the 1923 Breed Street Shul (Congregation Talmud Torah) in Los Angeles. The synagogue, which was featured in the original 1927 talkie The Jazz Singer, is one of the last vestiges of the once predominately Jewish community of Boyle Heights. A major synagogue in Los Angeles for five decades, it was the largest Orthodox synagogue west of Chicago prior to World War II.

An aftershock following the 1987 earthquake caused serious damage to the building, which closed in 1993. The tan and red brick Renaissance style facade is crumbling and covered with graffiti. Pigeons roost in the cracks in the ornate cast ornament of acanthus leaves and Jewish symbols. The synagogue's interior contains stained glass, rich woodwork, and hand-painted illustrations on the walls reminiscent of Eastern European Jewish folk art traditions, but prayer shawls and books share space with hypodermic needles. A small Orthodox congregation has argued that the building should be demolished since it no longer is a sacred space. The Jewish Historical Society and the Los Angeles Conservancy want to convert the synagogue into a museum or community center that would serve as a bridge between Jewish and Latino communities. In July 1996, however, the Los Angeles City Council unanimously passed an emergency motion to erect barricades around the building and declare it a public nuisance. The future of the building remains uncertain.

For more information contact Jewish Historical Society of Southern California, 6505 Wilshire Blvd, suite 512, Los Angeles, CA 90048

Leadville, Colorado
Tempel Israel, designed by local architect George Edward King, was dedicated in 1884 when Leadville was Colorado's second largest city and a mining boomtown. Leadville's Jews included the Guggenheim family and David May, founder the May Department Stores. The synagogue was an elegant structure outfitted with crystal chandeliers, stained-glass windows and a finely designed ark. The congregation struggled through the decline of the town's mining industry which began in the 1890, and finally was forced to close in 1930. After the building was sold in 1937, it was used briefly as a single-family residence and as a church vicarage. The structure currently houses apartments. In 1992 the Temple Israel Foundation took title to the building planning to restore the synagogue as a Jewish museum to document a rich but little known period in the history of American Jews and the American West. The restoration and conversion of the building, designed by Long Hoeft Architects, remains unfunded.

Bloomington, Indiana
The Moses Montefiore Synagogue was completed in 1889 after designs by George H. Miller. Rebuilt in 1892 after a fire, it served as an active synagogue unit 1959, when it was sold to Unity Church. It later housed the Evangelical Church until 1973 and then the Loving Missionary Baptist Church. In 1993, Peter Warshaw and Carol Ketcham bought the structure and turned the basement into their residence. Now, they are restoring the sanctuary space as a small-scale concert hall and meeting space.

Boston, Massachusetts
The Vilna Shul, the lone survivor of fifty-three places of Jewish worship listed in the Boston city register of 1920, is now being reclaimed as a Jewish museum/cultural center. The Vilna Center for Jewish Heritage Inc., a nonprofit organization, raised the funds to buy the synagogue in January 1995.

With the help of a subsequent $50,000 matching grant from the Massachusetts Historical Commission's Preservation Projects Fund, the Vilna Center has successfully completed Phase I of its multi-phased plan: replacing the roof and three skylights and repairing the upper masonry. Finally, after ten years of abandonment and deterioration due to the elements, the sanctuary and its magnificent Ark are no longer threatened by water damage. Phase II, a $2.7 million capital campaign for the restoration and renovation of the building's interior, is being planned.

The Vilna Shul is Boston's only former synagogue listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Located at 14 Phillips Street on the North Slope of Beacon Hill, steps from Boston's prized Freedom Trail, the Shul is ideally located to present not only the history of Boston's Jewish community, but the record of its contributions to the life of the city. The North Slope is adjacent to what was Boston's West End, a vibrant immigrant neighborhood lost to urban renewal roughly thirty years ago.

The 1919 building's austere but powerful sanctuary is evocative of Europe's oldest synagogues. Three skylights, one positioned above the central bimah, flood the sanctuary with natural light, while the red brick walls and the gracefully arched windows recall a typical New England meeting house. The imposing two-story carved wooden ark, designed and carved by Sam Katz, features traditional Jewish religious carvings finished in gold leaf, all crowned by a majestic eagle. Vibrant polychromatic stenciling, reminiscent of Polish synagogues, were recently discovered beneath layers of white paint in the building's sanctuary. A large, round Star of David window graces the Phillips Street facade.

Efforts by volunteers initiated renovations beginning with cleaning and repair of portions of the building, including its old boiler furnace and plumbing system. The Vilna Center Board of Directors then selected architect Claude Emanuel Menders to oversee the project.

Boston.  Vilna Shul, Ark.

Photo: Boston. Vilna Shul, Ark, designed by Sam Katz. Courtesy of Vilna Center for Jewish Heritage.

In 1994 Partners for Sacred Places conferred its "Award for Sacred Place Reclaimed" on the Vilna Center. In 1996, the Boston Preservation Alliance presented the Vilna Center with its "Preservation in Progress Award."

The Vilna Center and the American Jewish Historical Society plan to jointly produce exhibits and related programming. Boston's wealth of Jewish academies assures program resources that will enable the Vilna Center to maintain the highest standard of excellence.

For more information contact Deborah Bogin Cohen, Vilna Center for Jewish Heritage, Inc., One Financial Center, 40th fl., Boston, Massachusetts 02111, (617) 247-2141 / fax (617) 247-3336.

On the Vilna Shul and other synagogues of the Boston area see: David Kaufman, "Temples in the American Athens: a History of he Synagogues of Boston," in J.D. Sarna and E. Smith, Eds., The Jews of Boston: Essays on the Occasion of the Centenary (1895-1995) of the Combined Jewish Philanthropies of Greater Boston. (Boston, 1995), 167-207.

Minneapolis, Minnesota
Three north Minneapolis synagogues: Mihro Kodesh Synagogue at 1000 Oliver Avenue North, Adath Jeshurun Synagogue at 3400 Dupont Avenue South, and Sharei Zedeck Synagogue at 1119 Morgan Avenue North are in the initial steps of research by the Minneapolis Heritage Preservation Commission for future heritage designation. Currently there are no synagogues in any area of Minneapolis with heritage designation. St. Paul has designated Mount Zion Temple on Summit Avenue, but has no plans for further designations of synagogues. All three of these buildings are in solid condition and are occupied for use as Christian churches. The exteriors are still in "splendid" condition. The Oliver Avenue North synagogue's polychromatic exterior features twin domed corner towers and a magnificent entrance. Star of David elements have remained through the building's current use as an African-American Baptist place of worship, symbolizing the cultural transition this building and the community have made.

Port Gibson, Mississippi
The unusual Moorish Style red brick Temple Gemiluth Chassed was built in 1892 and served as the center for the Jewish population of Port Gibson for more than eighty years. As younger Jews left the small town for larger southern urban centers, the Jewish community dwindled, and the synagogue was finally closed in 1978. It sat empty for a decade, and just as it was to be demolished, Martha and Bill Lum, who lived next door, stepped in and purchased the building with an aim to restore it (for uncertain use). The building is listed on the National Register of Historic Places, and is in the Port Gibson Historic District. Currently, there is a dispute between the Lums, who now would like to turn the building into a commercial structure, and local preservationists -- including representatives of the Museum of the Southern Jewish Experience in nearby Utica -- who would like to save it as a Jewish site.Temple Gemiluth Chassed

Photo: Port Gibson, Mississippi. Temple Gemiluth Chassed, © Samuel Gruber.

For information contact The Museum of the Southern Jewish Experience, P.O. Box 16528, Jackson, MS 39236-0528.

Newark, New Jersey
The former Oheb Shalom Synagogue in Newark, in use as a religious building since 1884, has been saved from demolition and is now in the process of restoration. In an extraordinary turnaround, the City of Newark, which had filed for permission to demolish the landmark building in 1991, sold the structure to the Greater Newark Conservancy, a nonprofit environmental group which will restore the building as it headquarters, keeping the 19th-century sanctuary and other historic features of the building intact. The Conservancy purchased the building from the city for $22,000 and estimates $1.5 million will be needed for a complete restoration. Approximately a third of the funds have been raised, and the exterior envelope of the building has been repaired and conserved.

The two-and-a-half story brick Moorish Style synagogue was the home of Congregation Oheb Shalom form 1884 to 1911 and Congregation Adas Israel/Congregation Mishnayes 1911 to 1939, when it was sold to Metropolitan Baptist Church. Demolition was sought to clear the way for an housing development û the first market-rate project constructed in Newark's devastated Central Ward in decades. A coalition of local preservationists led by the Newark Preservation and Landmarks Committee, in a series of meetings with city officials and local leaders over a two year period, worked out a mutually acceptable solution. Many factors -- local development plans, the city's precarious financial situation, and the wishes of the Metropolitan Baptist Church, which was vacating the building that it had occupied since 1939 -- all had to be considered in the process. The result, which saves an important site of Jewish and African-American history is a major victory for historic preservation in Newark. The entire process can serve as a valuable model for preservation and civic groups throughout the country.

Together with The Newark Preservation and Landmarks Comm., Congregation Oheb Shalom of South Orange, the City of Newark, and the World Monuments Fund sponsored a preservation report which proved that it was essentially in good condition and could be saved and maintained. The efforts of Mark Gordon, a local resident and researcher on historic American synagogues was essential to keeping the entire process on track.

For more information contact The Greater Newark Conservancy, 303 Washington St., 5th fl., Newark, NJ 07102, tel. (201) 642-4646.

Publication of note: Mark Gordon. "Rediscovering Jewish Infrastructure: Update on United States Nineteenth Century Synagogues," in American Jewish History, 84:1 (March, 1966), 11-27.

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Updated: 24-Jul-98