- Rediscovering Jewish Infrastructure: Update on United States Nineteenth Century Synagogues
This article first appeared in American Jewish History in March 1986. It identified for the first time in a single place fifty-two extant nineteenth-century synagogue buildings. Most of these structures had been located by searching downtown districts throughout the country armed with articles from the three English-language Jewish encyclopedias. Touring former Jewish neighborhoods sometimes leads 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.), assist in identifying and dating the building.
After the article appeared, I received letters indicating that five other surviving synagogues had inadvertently been omitted. A small network of historic synagogue mavens also assisted in locating more extant structures. These experts include Samuel Gruber from the Jewish Heritage Council (subsidiary of World Monuments Fund), Julian Preisler, Allen Meyers, Rochelle Elstein, Leonard Williams, and Rabbi William Rosenthall. Their contributions along with my continued urban exploring led to the discovery to date of a total of ninety-six extant U.S. nineteenth-century synagogue structures.
The attached table provides a compilation of all known pre-1900 buildings which were originally erected as synagogues and which still stand. Each entry 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.
Some of the congregations listed—such as those in Newport, Charleston, Savannah, and Shearith Israel in New York—are among the oldest Jewish congregations in the country. Many of the congregations were the oldest in their respective cities; they started out as Orthodox and, in some instances, evolved into Conservative or Reform in the middle to late nineteenth century.
The three oldest buildings in the attached table remain under Jewish ownership. Newport’s Touro Synagogue is home to the successor of the original Sephardic congregation which constructed it. Beth Elohim in Charleston is the oldest U.S. synagogue in continual use and one of the birthplaces of Reform Judaism in America. The third oldest is the first building of Baltimore Hebrew Congregation. [End Page 11]
The Touro Synagogue was designed in the Georgian style by noted architect Peter Harrison. Both Beth Elohim and the Baltimore Hebrew Congregation were constructed in the Greek Revival style, popular for houses of worship in the 1840s. After the Colonial and Greek Revival periods, synagogue structures generally continued to follow the trends in American secular and ecclesiastical architecture. Romanesque synagogues with round arched windows prevailed in the 1850s, with Gothic and Victorian styles more common in the 1870s and 1880s.
The Moorish style, however, 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. Congregations built Moorish buildings in part to differentiate them from Victorian-style churches. Another theory for their popularity is the nineteenth-century revival of Jewish scholarly interest in the history of the Sephardic Diaspora, including their Golden Age in Spain and Northern Africa. [End Page 12]
At the turn of the century, synagogue architecture returned to the American architectural mainstream with a heavy emphasis on Classical Revival styles. This change is attributable in part to the interest in classical design at the 1893 Columbian Exposition in Chicago and also to archeological discoveries of Galilean synagogues built during Roman times.
Worship and Adaptive Reuse
While many of the buildings originally constructed as synagogues are now used...