Monday, March 9, 2009

USA: Philadelphia's Society Hill Synagogue Receives Preservation Grant

USA: Philadelphia's Society Hill Synagogue Receives Preservation Grant
by Samuel D. Gruber

(ISJM) On February 7, 2009,The Philadelphia-based preservation organization Partners for Sacred Places has announced that Society Hill Synagogue, at 418 Spruce Street (between 4th and Lawrence Streets) in Philadelphia, has been awarded an $80,000 matching grant for critical repairs to the envelope of the 19th century sanctuary and annex. The money comes from Partners’ Philadelphia Regional Fund for Sacred Places, established three years ago. This is the Fund’s first grant to a synagogue. Over the course of the next two years, the congregation must raise at least $160,000 in matching funds to complete several restoration projects.

The massive granite, brick and stucco synagogue was designed by leading Philadelphia architect Thomas U. Walter (1804-1887) in 1829 as the Spruce Street Baptist Church, of which he was a member. In 1851, the church was enlarged and a new façade with an imposing attic story, was also designed by Walter. Originally there were cupolas over the side bays of the façade, which project slightly like towers, so the overall appearance of the building was loftier and less bulky. The Baptist Church left the building in 1908, when the area had become Philadelphia’s teeming Jewish immigrant neighborhood (my own grandfather was born just a few blocks away at 4th and Bainbridge). By 1910 the building was sold to a Romanian Jewish congregation, Beth Hamedrash Hagadol Nusach Ashkenaz.

The Society Hill Synagogue, a conservative congregation, was formed in 1967 during the early years of the revival, restoration and gentrification of what became known as the Society Hill Neighborhood. From 1968 on the congregation restored the building, including Walter’s façade, under the supervision of several architects Henry J. Magaziner (1968) and Cauffman, Wilkenson & Pepper, architects in association with John Milner (1971 ff.). The building is listed a Philadelphia City Landmark and on the state and National Registers of Historic Places. In 1985, architect James A. Oleg Kruhly designed a new addition and in 2007 planning began for an expansion into the building next door, to add classroom and administrative facilities.

In addition to the design of this unintended synagogue, Thomas U. Walter also designed the Egyptian Revival style Crown Street Synagogue in 1845. At that time Walter, who had been a pupil of William Strickland, was already well known as the designer of Philadelphia’s Classical style Girard College (1833-47) and the Egyptian style Moyamensing Debtor’s Prison, among other works. He would later go on to earn national fame as the architect of the dome of the United States Capitol Building in Washington, DC.

In past postings I have written about synagogues becoming churches, but early in the 20th century in American cities, the reverse was more likely to be true. Society Hill Synagogue is not the only synagogue in the neighborhood located in an historic church. Kesher Israel Synagogue at Lombard Street between 4th and 5th Streets was built as the First Universalist Church in 1794. It was transformed into a synagogue in the 1890s.

Society Hill Synagogue is open to the public weekdays from 10:00 am to 3:00 pm.
Best to call in advance (215) 922-6590. Kesher Israel can be visited by appointment. Call (215) 922-1776. Both congregations have regular services. Check for hours.

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