Tuesday, June 23, 2009

USA: Restoration Work at Lloyd Street Synagogue, Baltimore

Baltimore, Maryland. The Lloyd street Synagogue as it appears today with repainted exterior.
Photo: Courtesy of the Jewish Museum of Maryland.

Baltimore, Maryland. Lloyd street Synagogue before recent restoration.
The red brick was originally painted and now has been painted again.
Photos: Samuel D. Gruber 2005.

USA: Restoration Work at Lloyd Street Synagogue, Baltimore
by Samuel D. Gruber

Baltimore's Lloyd Street Synagogue, built in 1845 as home to the Baltimore Hebrew Congregation, and now part of the Jewish Museum of Maryland, has received a 2009 Historic Preservation Award from Baltimore Heritage, inc., a citywide, nonprofit historic and architectural preservation organization.

The Synagogue/Museum is in the midst of a restoration and renewal project. The first phase of restoration, which as been completed, included exterior painting; masonry, wood, and window repair; and roof replacement. Phase 2 will include the installation of a sprinkler and HVAC system, air conditioning. John Srygley of JRS Architects is the preservation architect working on the project.

From an historical point of view, it is more interesting that the Museum is taking this opportunity to develop a new history exhibition in the downstairs area: The Synagogue Speaks, which will focus on each of the three immigrant congregations that occupied the building (Baltimore Hebrew Congregation, 1845-1889; St. John the Baptist Roman Catholic congregation, 1889 to 1905; and Shomrei Mishmeres, an East European shul, 1890-1905).

A key feature of the exhibition will be an animated digital presentation showing the changes to the sanctuary through the years as the building changed from Orthodox to Reform Judaism, to Catholicism, and then back to Orthodox Judaism.

Baltimore, Maryland. Oldest photo of Lloyd Street Synagogue

The former synagogue will be closed to the public from June 23rd on. Visitors can still see the marvelous B'nai Israel Synagogue next door, and the video tour of the two synagogues. The Museum will be half priced during the renovation ($4 per adult, $2 per student, and $1 per child at 12 and under).

The Lloyd Street Synagogue is one of the most important in the United States both because of its age and architecture, but also because it varied history is representative of almost every phase of synagogue Judaism experience in America. It is the third oldest standing synagogue building in the country (after Touro in Newport and Beth Elohim in Charleston), and its typical Greek Revival (ancient) Temple form, designed by leading Baltimore architect Robert Carey Long, Jr., has always been an exemplary expression of that important style American synagogue (and civic) architecture. But the building underwent many transformations, and these are significant, too. It was enlarged in 1860 (by architect William H. Reason), and remodeled c. 1873 several changes were made, including adding an organ and removing the central bimah. Presumably at this time the bimah was added to the Ark platform (duchan) in what was fast becoming the standard Reform practice.

Both of these events reflected the congregation’s slow drift from Traditional (Orthodox) Judaism to Reform. Still later, in 1888, the synagogue was purchased and used as a church by the new Lithuanian Roman Catholic congregation, one of the first such transformations in the country (foreshadowing what would, after World War II, become a major trend).

At Lloyd Street, however, the tables turned, and the Jews returned, and in 1905 the then-Church of St. John the Baptist was sold to the Eastern European Orthodox Shomrei Mishmeres Congregation, which established itself in the building, where it remained until 1963. Shmorei Mishmere also remodeled, and brought a taste of Poland (or at least Eastern Europe) to the sanctuary, which they decorated with wall paintings - some following the contemporary synagogue vogue for scenes of Eretz Yisrael. As if these transformations were not enough, fifty years ago the synagogue took on a new role as the home of the Jewish Museum of Maryland, and in the 1960s the building was radically "restored," - so that most of the accretions added by its different congregations were removed, but there was little knowing if what was recreated was really close or not to the original. Still, Lloyd Street is important as one of the first instances of a communal effort to protect and preserve an historic American synagogue. Between 1963 and 1965, the building was restored to what was believed to be its original appearance. The full story is told by Louis F. Cahn in The Restoration of the Lloyd Street Synagogue (Baltimore: Jewish Historical society of Maryland, 1973).

Beginning in the 1990s, however, under the former Museum director Bernard Fishman, detailed studies of the building fabric, including paint studies and archaeological investigations, revealed that the 1960’s renovation had altered the building in ways that obscured many of its historic features.

[See Bernard Fishman, “Lloyd Street Synagogue’s Wandering Ark: Solving Architectural Mysteries in Maryland’s Oldest Synagogue,” in Generations (Fall, 1990), 17-21; and ibid., “Color and Camouflage in Baltimore’s Lloyd Street Synagogue, 1845-1991, in
Maryland Historical Magazine, 90:3 (Fall, 1995), 287-311]

About the Synagogue

The Baltimore Hebrew Congregation was incorporated in 1830 and the synagogue on Lloyd and Water Streets was dedicated on September 26, 1845. A description of the dedication by Isaac Leeser published in The Occident (November 1845) mentions several building features that were deemed significant at the time. These include the Doric portico of the synagogue with “a flight of steps on each side” leading up to a gallery which ran on three sides. The original building was smaller than the present structure – it was extended by thirty feet in 1860 and presumably remodeled in ways we cannot now determine. The building was again substantially rebuilt on the inside and rededicated in 1871. Thus, though the first building which was bays long, was extended to six bays for a total of six tall windows on each side.

Significantly, inside, “this is no platform or Teba (Almemar) but merely a reading desk placed close in front of the Ark. This, a decided defect, is owing doubtlessly to the narrowness of the building, a fault which we fear will not be easily remedied.” The absence of the Teba (by which term Leeser refers to the bimah) “could not possibly be attributed to Reform ideas, since Abraham Rice, the rabbi of the congregation, was strictly Orthodox.”

“The main floor of the church is fitted up with pews, and has a gallery extending on three sides of the church appropriated entirely to the female portion of the congregation. The eastern wall has a round window filled with stained glass directly over the ark [cabinet containing the Torah]. The ark… is a semi-circular temple with Corinthian pillars and ribs, and carved ornaments on the roof and the tables of the law in front. The doors are enriched with carvings and slide on rollers around the curve of the sides. On each side of the ark is an elevated platform with rich finished arm chairs for the President and Vice President of the congregation. In front is the reading desk and seats for the readers, of solid walnut. The window over the ark bears [sic.] the shape of a double star, of the most beautiful variegated colors, illustrating the shield of David, in the centre of which is a representation of a Greecian [sic.] Corinthian Acanthus. The spaces between the points of the star are filled with Grecian leaves, the whole surrounded by a circle to correspond….The windows are tinted of a golden color and diffuse a warm glow of light in the interior. The interior wood work is painted of a warm drab color, and the walls and ceilings when dry are going to be finished in fresco.” (Baltimore American and Commercial Advertiser, September, 1845).

The original Lloyd Street Synagogue Ark was, according to Leeser, “a semi-circle, reached by a flight of steps of the same form, on the plan of the Synagogues of New York.” Such an arrangement can be seen in the still-extant Ark at Beth Elohim in Charleston.

The arrangement of 1845 was significantly altered when the building was extended by thirty feet in 1860, and a new east wall with ark was erected. At this time a full bimah was inserted in the synagogue near the new Ark, but not immediately in front of it. The bimah, here referred to as a raised desk, was described in a 1860 Baltimore American newspaper article: “Within the space left in the centre of the building, the desk, handsomely draped in purple velvet with bullion bordering, is raised. In front of the desk a number of semi-circular benches are placed for the accommodation of the choir, who face the ark and pulpit stand.” Click here for the entire article.

1 comment:

Hels said...

I read your article called
"Built Judaism: How Synagogue Photography Opens Worlds", many thanks.

I lecture at the Florence Melton Institute here in Australia. Largely we find that people do not think that Jewish Architectural History is an important academic subject. Of course the students love spending time in old European synagogues, but most believe that academic architectural history is Not For Us. Literature yes, music yes, linguistics yes but not architecture.

Because 98% of Melbourne Jewry came from Poland, Russia, Austria, Germany and Hungary, there is even less knowledge of New World synagogue architecture. I will get the students to have a look at the Baltimore building.