Monday, June 1, 2020

San Diego, California. 2512 Third Ave. at Laurel. Ohr Shalom Synagogue (formerly 2nd home of Congregation Beth Israel). William H. Wheeler, architect, 1926. Photo: Samuel Gruber 2007.
San Diego, California. 2512 Third Ave. at Laurel. Ohr Shalom Synagogue (formerly 2nd home of Congregation Beth Israel). William H. Wheeler, architect, 1926. Photo: Samuel Gruber 2016.
San Diego, California. 2512 Third Ave. at Laurel. Ohr Shalom Synagogue (formerly 2nd home of Congregation Beth Israel). William H. Wheeler, architect, 1926. Sanctuary stained glass window, dtl. Photo: Samuel Gruber 2016.
San Diego, California. 2512 Third Ave. at Laurel. Ohr Shalom Synagogue (formerly 2nd home of Congregation Beth Israel). William H. Wheeler, architect, 1926. Sanctuary stained glass window, dtl. Photo: Samuel Gruber 2016.
San Diego, California. 2512 Third Ave. at Laurel. Ohr Shalom Synagogue (formerly 2nd home of Congregation Beth Israel). Stained glass window in vestibule, dtl.  Photo: Samuel Gruber 2016.

San Diego's Second Beth Israel Synagogue; now Home to Ohr Shalom Synagogue

by Samuel Gruber

Several years ago I reported on the first structure built for Congregation Beth Israel in San Diego, the first purpose-built synagogue in San Diego, which was moved in 1977 to Heritage Park and restored. 

The congregation has had two subsequent homes, both notable structures. The second synagogue at 3rd & Laurel Streets, which has been described as Byzantine-Moorish in style, was dedicated in 1926 and used by Beth Israel until that congregation moved to a new much larger facility.

With additions, Third & Laurel (as the Temple was known), eventually occupied a full city block, much of which included a 1960's school building which, while not deemed historic, is distinctively mid-century modern in style. After a sometimes contentious but eventually amicable preservation initiative, Beth Israel was able to realize significant income from sale of the 3rd and Laurel properties, but fortunately the most architecturally and culturally significant elements were preserved for Jewish purpose. Conservative congregation Ohr Shalom purchased the sanctuary and the social building in 2002 for the growing congregation's new home.

Ohr Shalom then raised funds to complete a $4.2 million renovation and restoration in 2010 that brought the building up to earthquake-resistant safety levels, replaced out-dated mechanical systems, and refurbished and restored many of the building's historic architectural and decorative details. Among these are a series of brilliantly colored stained glass windows. These windows were highly prized by the Beth Israel congregation for their artistic and sentimental value but were left in situ for the new congregation. Replicas, very close in design to the originals, however, were created to adorn the chapel in the New Beth El complex at University Park (see below).

The congregant and citizen-led effort to save the old sanctuary is described in an article here, written by esteemed local Jewish historians Laurel and Stanley Schwartz who were actively engaged in this effort and also created a richly documented permanent historical exhibitions at the new Beth Israel synagogue complex.

San Diego, California. 2512 Third Ave. at Laurel. Ohr Shalom Synagogue (formerly 2nd home of Congregation Beth Israel). William H. Wheeler, architect, 1926. Original entrance. Photo: Samuel Gruber 2016.
San Diego, California. 2512 Third Ave. at Laurel. Ohr Shalom Synagogue (formerly 2nd home of Congregation Beth Israel). William H. Wheeler, architect, 1926. Original entrance stained-glass. Photo: Samuel Gruber 2016.
San Diego, California. 2512 Third Ave. at Laurel. Ohr Shalom Synagogue (formerly 2nd home of Congregation Beth Israel). William H. Wheeler, architect, 1926. Original entrance stained glass. Photo: Samuel Gruber 2016. Photo: Richard Schulte (from web).
The structure was designed by William H. Wheeler, who was also architect of San Diego's Balboa Theater and many other buildings in the area. Wheeler was originally from Australia and had settled in San Francisco. After surviving the 1906 earthquake there, he moved to San Diego, studied engineering and pursued a successful architectural career. In August 1925, the congregation awarded a contract to M. Trepte and Son for $69,300 to build the new temple. The Byzantine style domed sanctuary and adjoining synagogue center was dedicated on May 14, 1926. The total cost was $100,000.

According to Stanley and Laurel Schwartz, "Wheeler was a prolific architect in San Diego and elsewhere. Among his most notable buildings are the Balboa Theatre at Horton Plaza, recently restored and in use, and also on the National Register of Historic Places; the Church of the Immaculate Conception in Old Town, a vital part of the local parish; the All Saints Episcopal Church in Hillcrest; the Klauber-Wangenheim Building in downtown San Diego; and the Governor’s Palace in Mexicali".

It is not surprising in this period to find synagogue architects who were also theater architects, as the interior arrangement of theaters and Reform temples were similar, and most of the design problems - seating capacity and sight lines, acoustics, and natural and artificial lighting, were the same. Not surprisingly, many former synagogues of this period have been reused as theaters and performance centers in Seattle, Detroit, Milwaukee, Cleveland and elsewhere.

Domed synagogues in some variation of the Byzantine style were popular at the time, as at Boston's Ohabei ShalomChicago's Temple Isaiah, Detroit's Shaaray Zedek and a little closer to home, Los Angeles's Wilshire Boulevard Temple. The sanctuary at 3rd and Laurel was octagonal, which was unusual but not unheard of for a synagogue, especially in the 1920s. When the Byzantine style often allowed the inscribing of an octagon inside a square plan. Contemporary synagogue sanctuaries in Erie and Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, for example, were also octagonal.


San Diego, California. 2512 Third Ave. at Laurel. Ohr Shalom Synagogue (formerly 2nd home of Congregation Beth Israel). Sanctuary dome oculus stained glass. Photo: Samuel Gruber 2016.
We do not know what influenced William Wheeler or the congregation in 3rd and Laurel design. Many architects and congregations also reached into an older bag of purportedly Jewish motifs and pulled out variations of Moorish-style decoration that had been popular from the 1860s through the 1880s, and was making a resurgence in the 1920s. In the 1920s, however, the Moorish style, was much more common in the lavish decoration of movie palaces than for synagogues, or in the stylized Art Deco ornament of commercial buildings. The style's suggestion of "Orientalism" did, however, take on new meaning in the 1920s in the aftermath of the Balfour Declaration and the growing popularity of Zionism. This look eastward to Palestine was, however, mostly restricted to the Orthodox and Conservative communities, as seen best in the 1928 Moorish-Art Deco architectural mix of Zysman Hall of Yeshiva College (now University) on Washington Heights in New York.

For the leadership of the Reform Movement, Zionism was seen as essentially un-American. Even for those who supported Jewish settlement in Palestine, risked  accusations of dual loyalties or disloyalty to America. Reform leaders, who for decades had encouraged assimilation, feared (rightly so) that embrace of Zionism would encourage American antisemitism. Popular attitudes would begin to change as antisemitism rose in Europe in the 1930s and as antisemitism rose in America, too, for reasons not related to Zionism. Most Reform leaders also rejected the once-popular Moorish style for new synagogue (temple) buildings in favor of classicism, which was also less associated with the architecture of escapism and fantasy (movie theaters and amusement parks). In the 1920s Reform Jews increasingly accepted the Byzantine style
which while new to America, was less exotic than Moorish, and also had some functional advantages.

Prominent Jewish architects Arnold W. Brunner and Alfred Altschuler justified their preference for the classical (Brunner) and then the Byzantine (Altschuler) styles as appropriate for synagogue design on the basis of the discovery of ancient synagogues, but also both styles more closely fit into American mainstream architectural styles of the time than the Moorish. The Byzantine style could also be highly decorative. Though 3rd and Laurel has been described as Moorish in style, there are actual few traces in that style in the design. The massing, the wall treatments, the dome, and even the windows are more in keeping with the popular Byzantine style of the 1920s. Only the pointed arches of the corner "tower" windows at the entrance, and the richness of the some of the  decorative panels, suggest the Moorish style, but these are mostly subsumed into the broad "Byzantine" aesthetic.

 


San Diego, California. 2512 Third Ave. at Laurel. Ohr Shalom Synagogue (formerly 2nd home of Congregation Beth Israel). Sanctuary as it appeared c. 1950. Photo: Temple Beth Israel (from historical exhibit).
San Diego, California. 2512 Third Ave. at Laurel. Ohr Shalom Synagogue (formerly 2nd home of Congregation Beth Israel). Sanctuary redone ca. 1950.  Photo: Jewish Historical Society of San Diego.


San Diego, California. 2512 Third Ave. at Laurel. Ohr Shalom Synagogue (formerly 2nd home of Congregation Beth Israel). Sanctuary looking at north window.  North window. Photo: Samuel Gruber 2016.

 
San Diego, California. 2512 Third Ave. at Laurel. Ohr Shalom Synagogue (formerly 2nd home of Congregation Beth Israel). Sanctuary looking at north window.  North window. Photo: Samuel Gruber 2016.

San Diego, California. 2512 Third Ave. at Laurel. Ohr Shalom Synagogue (formerly 2nd home of Congregation Beth Israel). Bimah.  Photo: Samuel Gruber 2016.

San Diego, California. 2512 Third Ave. at Laurel. Ohr Shalom Synagogue (formerly 2nd home of Congregation Beth Israel). Sanctuary, view of balcony and south window.  North window. Photo: Samuel Gruber 2016.

Stained-Glass Windows

The 3rd and Laurel synagogue is notable for its stained-glass windows. Before additions were made to the building these were brilliantly lit by natural light. The visitor encounters the window even before entering the building, since the entrance tympanum consists of a stained-glass window in which the Ten Commandants float on a blue glass field. As Jenna Weissman Joselit has documented in her book Set in Stone: America's Embrace of the Ten Commandments, representation of the Ten Commandments was ubiquitous in America in the 1920s. The Decalogue was a standard element on many synagogue exteriors, but this is a rare (unique?) instance of stained-glass over the portal. Other stained-glass windows from the vestibule fronted onto the facade, and these large windows were the main decorative features on the otherwise white exterior, where they read as almost solid blue windows set into the white walls.

The windows throughout the building are mostly made of grids of small panes of opalescent glass with variations of light blue the dominant color.

The two large stained-glass windows of the sanctuary each consist of a tripartite window within a single arched opening. Each of the three "lights" is keyhole shaped, with a rectangular lower section and a spade-shaped top. At the very bottom are small horizontal panels that might have been intended for memorial inscriptions but were left empty. Most of the windows are the simple grid-pattern of opalescent panes. In the upper part of each rectangle is a small emblem. The center section is higher and wider. In the top part of each section are symbols, some immediately recognizable as Jewish but others less certain. On the south window the emblems include an etrog and lulav in the center, a snake on the left and a banner on the right. Above are seven-branched menorahs on each side and in the top center a dove surmounting a tree-trunk with a bit of vine.


 San Diego, California. 2512 Third Ave. at Laurel. Ohr Shalom Synagogue (formerly 2nd home of Congregation Beth Israel). Dtl of stained glass window in sanctuary. Etrog and lulav. Photo: Samuel Gruber 2016.
 

San Diego, California. 2512 Third Ave. at Laurel. Ohr Shalom Synagogue (formerly 2nd home of Congregation Beth Israel). Dtl of stained glass window in sanctuary. Photo: Samuel Gruber 2016.

The dove and the banner can have Jewish meaning. Although I'm not sure of the origins of these symbols; to me they seem to be adapted from a Christian symbol book. While the dove could represent the bird sent out by Noah after the flood, resting on a tree with ivy, symbolizing renewal, or representing peace or a Temple offering, it could also refer in Christian terms to the dove of the holy spirit, and tree trunk with the vine would represent death and resurrection, and the grouping of three leaves the Christian Trinity. The other emblems used are equally enigmatic. The snake could refer to the staff of Moses or the Brazen serpent, but snakes are mostly disparaged in Judaism and are rarely represented in a positive light. The meaning of the banner is also unclear. True, the Israelites upon gaining freedom after the Exodus are said to have raised banners, but this is rarely represented. Again, in Christian terms the snake would be Satan and the banner representative of Christ's victory through resurrection.

Similarly, on the north wall it is nice to think of the central chalice as a kiddush cup, and certainly the symbol of the Torah scroll is explicitly Jewish and appropriate for a synagogue as the House of Prayer and the House of Study.  But the other emblems on this window were not clear to me. The central chalice, it is an unusual central symbol in Jewish context, but in Christian terms it would be the wine used at the mass, seen through transubstantiation as the actual blood of Christ, and thus a symbol of his sacrifice and resurrection. This would hardly be the first time when a Christian architect and a Christian stained glass studio adapted themes they were familiar with from Church decoration for Jewish use. It's actually an artistic practice with centuries of precedent in the creation of fine Judaica. I'll write more about this another time.

 
San Diego, California. 2512 Third Ave. at Laurel. Ohr Shalom Synagogue (formerly 2nd home of Congregation Beth Israel). Stained glass window restored in 2010.  Photo: Samuel Gruber 2016.

San Diego, California. 2512 Third Ave. at Laurel. Ohr Shalom Synagogue (formerly 2nd home of Congregation Beth Israel). Sanctuary "kiddush cup" window, 1926, restored 2010.  Photo: Samuel Gruber 2016.

I have not seen original plans for the building, but it seems it was designed with four two-story corner tower-like spaces that were lit by stained glass. These can still be seen on the east and south street facades. The windows were mostly made of groups of rectangular panels of opalescent glass, mostly of blue and white, bound with narrow glass borders of a darker amber color. In the upper parts, however, each window set had two roundels, each with a sign of one of the 12 Tribes of Israel. I was able to see roundels of Reuven, Zebulun, Judah, Levi, and Issachar. The Reuven and Zebulun roundels were painted as a landscape and seascape (with boat) in a loose style, reminiscent of watercolor, in keeping with the popular Arts and Crafts taste. Judah and Issachar are more traditionally and finely painted images of animals - the lion and the "strong-boned ass". The sign for Levi is an unusual depiction of two cross swords. The artists were no-doubt professionals at the (unknown) stained glass studio, and there is at least one misspelling in Hebrew labels.
San Diego, California. 2512 Third Ave. at Laurel. Ohr Shalom Synagogue (formerly 2nd home of Congregation Beth Israel). Stained glass window in vestibule restored in 2010.  Photo: Samuel Gruber 2016.
San Diego, California. 2512 Third Ave. at Laurel. Ohr Shalom Synagogue (formerly 2nd home of Congregation Beth Israel). Stained glass window in vestibule, dtl.  Photo: Samuel Gruber 2016.
San Diego, California. 2512 Third Ave. at Laurel. Ohr Shalom Synagogue (formerly 2nd home of Congregation Beth Israel). Stained glass window in vestibule, dtl.  Photo: Samuel Gruber 2016.
San Diego, California. 2512 Third Ave. at Laurel. Ohr Shalom Synagogue (formerly 2nd home of Congregation Beth Israel). Stained glass window in vestibule, dtl.  Photo: Samuel Gruber 2016.



San Diego, California. 2512 Third Ave. at Laurel. Ohr Shalom Synagogue (formerly 2nd home of Congregation Beth Israel). Stained glass window in vestibule, dtl.  Photo: Samuel Gruber 2016.

San Diego, California. 2512 Third Ave. at Laurel. Ohr Shalom Synagogue (formerly 2nd home of Congregation Beth Israel). Stained glass window in vestibule restored in 2010.  Photo: Samuel Gruber 2016.
San Diego, California. 2512 Third Ave. at Laurel. Ohr Shalom Synagogue (formerly 2nd home of Congregation Beth Israel). Stained glass window in vestibule, dtl.  Photo: Samuel Gruber 2016.
San Diego, California. 2512 Third Ave. at Laurel. Ohr Shalom Synagogue (formerly 2nd home of Congregation Beth Israel). Stained glass window in vestibule, dtl.  Photo: Samuel Gruber 2016

Replicas of Windows in New Synaoggue Chapel

The stained glass windows of 3rd and Laurel were beloved by the congregation. The decision was made, however, to leave them for the new congregation. While more contemporary stained glass windows are in the new sanctuary built on Towne Centre Drive, on the edge of University City, dedicated in October 2001, near replicas were made and placed in the domed Foster Family Chapel.

 
 San Diego, CA. Congregation Beth Israel, 3rd building, University City. Stained glass windows in Foster Family Chapel, 2001. Photo: Samuel Gruber 2016.

 
 San Diego, CA. Congregation Beth Israel, 3rd building, University City. Stained glass windows in Foster Family Chapel, 2001. Photo: Samuel Gruber 2016.

To read more about the history of Temple Beth Israel see: 

A Time to Remember: The First 150 Years, A History of Congregation Beth Israel in San Diego (San Diego: Congregation Beth Israel, 2012). 

Online at: and "House Calls: Making a religion of historic preservation"