Rediscovering Jewish Infrastructure

Rediscovering Jewish Infrastructure: 2018 Update on United States Eighteenth and Nineteenth-Century Synagogues

by Mark W. Gordon

This article – the third in a series – will document buildings which were originally erected as synagogues in the United States in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries and are still standing today.  Calling attention to these structures focuses on the importance of maintaining and preserving them, either as houses of worship or alternative uses.

Newport, RI

Figure 1. Jeshuat Israel’s Touro Synagogue of Newport, RI was built from 1759 to 1763 in the Georgian style. One of the oldest extant Jewish houses of worship in the Western Hemisphere, the synagogue was closed during much of the nineteenth century as the local economy declined and the Jewish community dispersed to other cities. It reopened in the 1880s. Photo by Mark W. Gordon.

The first article in this series appeared in American Jewish History in March 1986 (Vol. 75, No. 3). It identified for the first time fifty-two (52) extant eighteenth- and nineteenth-century synagogue buildings in the United States. I located many of these structures by searching downtown districts throughout the country. Touring former Jewish neighborhoods sometimes led to the sudden and exciting discovery of a former synagogue. Architectural styles, along with remnants of Judaic ornamentation (Stars of David, tablets, Hebrew cornerstones, etc.), assisted in identifying and dating the building.

Through additional urban exploring, research and input from American Jewish History readers around the country, the second article in this series, published in the March 1996 American Jewish History (Vol. 84, No. 1) enumerated ninety-six (96) extant purpose-built US eighteenth- and nineteenth-century synagogue structures including the fifty-two (52) noted above.

Architects, historians, urban planners and community members have used this information for a variety of purposes.  For example, many Jewish congregations are proud to worship in the oldest extant synagogues in the country.  By 2018, at least thirty separate Wikipedia entries footnote the March 1996 American Jewish History article, including individual entries for such well-known structures as Touro Synagogue (Newport – fig. 1), Plum Street Synagogue (Cincinnati) and Central Synagogue (NYC).

As of today, the total number of all known pre-1900 synagogue buildings is ninety-seven (97).  This includes twelve additional synagogues discovered in the last twenty-two years, offset by eleven subtractions from demolitions and other factors described below.  Each entry in Table 1 includes the address of the structure, its architectural style, the name of the original congregation, whether the original congregation still uses its building, and if not, the current use.  You may access Table 1 below.

Table 1: Pre-1900 Buildings Erected as Synagogues and Still Standing

View table as full page.

The ninety-seven (97) extant synagogues are located in thirty-one states and the District of Columbia.  Twenty are in New York State, with eleven of these in New York City.  Three states (IL, MD and NJ) have six each, with five in Colorado and Pennsylvania and three or less in the other states.

What Has Changed Since 1996

Leadville, CO

Figure 2. Temple Israel in Leadville, CO constructed and dedicated its Victorian Gothic synagogue in 1884. From 1937 to 1982, the building served as a radiator repair shop, dorm housing for miners, a vicarage, and apartment complex. All the original architectural detailing had been removed. However, from 2001 to 2008, the non-profit Temple Israel Foundation restored the façade and interior to its original appearance with the building reopening as a museum in 2012. Photo by Mark W. Gordon.

Additions:  During the last twenty-one years, the author has discovered twelve additional extant pre-1900 synagogue buildings.  These include structures in Cincinnati (Sherith Israel); Centerville, IA; New Orleans; Hudson, NY; Lafayette, LA; Ocala, FL; Brunswick, GA; Schenectady, NY; Allentown, PA; Brooklyn (Ahavath Scholom); Altoona, PA; and Peekskill, NY.

Subtractions:  Unfortunately, the twelve additions were offset by eleven subtractions.  These include discovery of seven demolitions:  Easton, PA (demolished in 2003 after fire damage); Cincinnati (K.K. Bene Israel); Placerville, CA; New York City (Or Zarua demolished by its Jewish congregation in 1999); Atlantic City (demolished by the city in 2013); Chicago (Anshe Emeth on Sedgwick St.); and Charleston, WV.  Some of the demolitions were verified by Google Street View aerial maps, a welcome update in technology.

Other reasons for subtractions include the discoveries that:  1) The Las Vegas, NM synagogue and New York City’s Forsyth St. Synagogue were originally purpose built as churches; 2) Ahavath Sholom in Buffalo was actually constructed in 1901-03 (after the 1900 cut-off); and 3) The synagogue in Demopolis, AL was newly built in the 1950s inside a much larger 1893 synagogue which was subsequently demolished.

Other Updates:  Temple Israel in Leadville, CO (fig. 2) was restored in 2008 to its original appearance by replacing decorative elements previously removed while used as apartments.  Kehilath Anshe Ma’ariv on Chicago’s South Side suffered significant damage from a building fire in 2006.  Only the exterior walls remain of this Chicago School synagogue designed by prominent architects Dankmar Adler and Louis Sullivan.

Additionally, information on synagogue dates of construction, names and addresses was reviewed and updated in 2018.

Physical Relocation of Synagogue Buildings

Over the years, synagogues in Madison, WI; Washington, DC; Charlottesville, VA (fig. 3); San Leandro, CA; and San Diego, CA, have been physically moved in order to save them from the wrecking ball.  More recently, Temple Beth Israel in Boise, ID was moved in 2003 adjacent to the congregation’s newer building, and B’nai Abraham in Brenham, TX was moved across several counties to the Austin JCC campus in 2014-15.1

Charlottesville, VA

Figure 3. Beth Israel in Charlottesville, VA built its Victorian Gothic synagogue in 1882. After the US Postal Service acquired the congregation’s property for postal uses around the turn of the last century, the synagogue was physically moved to its current location by 1904. Photo by Mark W. Gordon.

Worship and Adaptive Reuse

While many of the buildings originally constructed as synagogues are now used for other purposes, some remain as Jewish houses of worship. In over twenty different states, one or more nineteenth-century buildings are still utilized for Jewish services, as Table 1 indicates

Adaptive reuse of a historic building is defined as implementing a new and/or additional use for a building originally designed for another purpose. Structures such as fire houses, train stations, courthouses, and religious edifices often find new uses. Nineteenth-century synagogues are no exception. For these buildings, the most popular reuse is as a house of worship for another religion. Other successful adaptive reuses of synagogue buildings include offices, museums, community/cultural centers, performing arts centers, and schools. Unusual uses in 2018 include offices for the Catholic Diocese of Helena, MT and those for an anti-abortion group in Grand Rapids, MI. As a building's use is changed, the new owner can renovate it in such a way to preserve the structure's major architectural features. Reuse of a historic synagogue no longer needed by its original congregation is much preferable to demolition.

Some congregations may look to the Talmud for guidance when vacating a synagogue.  Mishnah Megillah 3:1 directs that congregations which sell a synagogue use the proceeds for an equivalent or holier purpose.  Based on interpretations of this text, an Orthodox congregation may place restrictions on a buyer’s future use of its house of worship.  For example, when the Jewish Historical Society of Maryland purchased Baltimore’s Lloyd Street Synagogue in 1963, it accepted a deed restriction that the building would not be used on Shabbat or Jewish festivals.2

Preservation Movement

An exciting development intensifying during the past twenty-five years has been various grassroots efforts to save synagogues threatened with demolition. Synagogues that have been saved from pending demolition include those in Baltimore, Corsicana, TX; Denver (fig. 4); Hartford; Newark, NJ (fig. 5); New York City; and Port Gibson, MS.

Awareness of these successful grassroots efforts to save nineteenth-century synagogues will hopefully spur other communities to mount similar efforts when historic Jewish infrastructure is threatened. Many of the buildings reflect architectural beauty and craftsmanship that would never be created today. Some of them provide a special historical element to a municipality’s original core downtown.

Temple Emanuel of Denver, CO

Figure 4. Temple Emanuel of Denver constructed its Moorish Revival/eclectic synagogue in 1898 with dedication in January 1899. In the early 1980s, the Lovingway Church offered this building for sale. Adjacent to numerous skyscrapers, it was to be razed to create another downtown surface parking lot. However, the Pearl Street Emanuel Foundation raised $180,000 to buy the synagogue and convinced the City of Denver to purchase it to become a performance and conference center. More recently, the building has become home to Denver Community Church. Photo by Mark W. Gordon.

Oheb Shalom in Newark, NJ

Figure 5. Oheb Shalom in Newark, NJ constructed and dedicated its synagogue with Moorish Revival façade in 1884. In the early 1990s, it was threatened with immediate demolition to become part of the site for a middle-class townhouse development. A small group of preservationists, including the author, saved the building from demolition. Purchased by the non-profit Greater Newark Conservancy in 1995, it serves as the centerpiece of the Conservancy’s Urban Environmental Center. The basement and portions of the building’s addition are now open. Sanctuary restoration is pending the final phase of fundraising. Photo by Matthew Gosser.

Architectural Styles

Table 1 includes the architectural styles for each synagogue entry.  Often following trends in secular and ecclesiastical architecture, the look of US synagogues evolved over the decades of the nineteenth century.

The Touro Synagogue, the only extant eighteenth century entry, was designed in the Georgian style by noted colonial architect Peter Harrison. Both Beth Elohim (Charleston, SC) and the Baltimore Hebrew Congregation were constructed in the Greek Revival style, popular for houses of worship in the 1840s and early 1850s. Beth Israel in Honesdale, PA (fig. 6) is an example of this style.  Romanesque Revival synagogues with round-arched windows became evident for several decades beginning in the 1850s as seen in Goldsboro, NC (fig. 7) and Salt Lake City (fig. 8),  Gothic Revival and Victorian styles, like those illustrated in Leadville, CO (fig. 2) and Charlottesville, VA (fig. 3), became more common beginning in the 1870s and 1880s. (A sub-style of Romanesque Revival architecture is Rundbogenstil originating in Germany. Nineteenth-century synagogues in Boise, ID; Lafayette, IN; and Madison, WI are examples of this sub-style (page 304 of the 1986 article features a photo of the Madison building).

Beth Israel in Honesdale, PA

Figure 6. Beth Israel in Honesdale, PA completed its Greek Revival synagogue in 1856. Unusual for a purpose-built Jewish house of worship, the roofline features a steeple, which municipal officials required to grant approval of a building permit. Photo by Mark W. Gordon.

Oheb Sholom of Goldsboro, NC

Figure 7. Oheb Sholom of Goldsboro, NC constructed its Romanesque Revival synagogue in 1886. Photo by Mark W. Gordon.

B’nai Israel of Salt Lake City

Figure 8. B’nai Israel of Salt Lake City built its Romanesque Revival synagogue in 1890–1891. The building is now used as a high-end office furniture store. Unfortunately, the bimah no longer exists. Photo by Mark W. Gordon.

Newport, RI

Figure 9. Shearith Israel, the mother congregation of North America, constructed its fifth synagogue on Central Park West of New York City in 1896–1897. Designed by noted architect Arnold Brunner, the structure reflected the move toward Classical Revival style for synagogues and other public buildings after the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair. The small chapel inside this Spanish & Portuguese Synagogue contains surviving furnishings and ritual elements from the congregation’s 1730 building. Photo by Mark W. Gordon.

The Moorish Revival style was used heavily for synagogues but not in secular architecture from the 1860s to 1890s. Moorish synagogues often contained onion-shaped domes or minarets, horseshoe arches, and polychromatic decoration. One theory for their popularity is the 19th century revival of Jewish scholarly interest in the history of the Sephardic Diaspora, including its Golden Age in Spain and Northern Africa.3 Additionally, congregations built Moorish buildings in part to differentiate them from Victorian-style churches.4   Examples of Moorish synagogues are those in Denver (fig. 4) and Newark (fig. 5).

At the turn of the century, synagogue architecture returned to the American architectural mainstream with a heavy emphasis on the Classical Revival style. The change is attributable to the interest in classical design at the 1893 Columbian Exposition in Chicago and also to archaeological discoveries of Galilean synagogues built during Roman times.5  This style was adopted by New York City’s Shearith Israel (fig. 9).

The small number of remaining eighteenth- and nineteenth-century structures underscores the transitions that have taken place in Jewish life over the past 150 years.  As Jews migrated out of small towns to large cities, and out of cities to suburbs, the religious spaces that they built have been purchased by new owners and used for new purposes.  Historical preservationists, however, have built community support both within and outside the Jewish community in order to preserve these synagogues as emblems of the Jewish past.

Those interested in learning more about eighteenth- and nineteenth-century synagogues may consult a list of sources linked here.

 

NOTES:

  1. Samuel D. Gruber, “In Texas, a Synagogue is Trucked to Its New City,” Tablet Magazine (New York City: Nextbook Inc., December, 2014).
  2. Earl Pruce, Synagogues, Temples and Congregations in Maryland: 1830-1990 (Baltimore: The Jewish Historical Society of Maryland, 1993), 84.
  3. Samuel D. Gruber, Synagogues (New York: MetroBooks – Friedman/Fairfax Publishers, 1999), 86-88.
  4. Geoffrey Wigoder, The Story of the Synagogue (San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1986), 174.
  5. Rachel Wischnitzer, Synagogue Architecture in the United States: History and Interpretation (Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society of America, 1955), 91, 95-96.

Mark W. Gordon is currently Principal of Urbana Consulting, LLC, which specializes in transit-oriented development and public/private partnerships.  His prior professional experience includes leadership in public finance, real estate, and economic development at NJ Transit, Illinois DOT, OMB, and the US Senate.  Mark has spearheaded saving and adaptive reuse of Newark’s Prince Street Synagogue built in 1884. He holds a BA from Reed College and an MBA from Harvard Business School.