by Samuel D. Gruber
(ISJM) In New Orleans, one of the oldest extant purpose-built synagogues in the United States, which had long been abandoned, has been recently renovated as condominium apartments. I have not seen the building, but based on various reports here is information on the building and a description of the project.
The former Shaare Tefilah (Gates of Prayer) Synagogue, completed in 1867 and located at 709 Jackson Avenue (across the street from the Romanesque Revival Jackson Avenue Evangelical Congregation) was purchased in 2012 by developer and contractor Gregg Morris who has built twelve residential lofts in the (originally) two-story structure. The brick (mostly) classical-style synagogue is of a type seemingly common in the mid-19th century - where the ground floor was used as a social hall and sometimes as as school, and the main sanctuary was upstairs. A further level of galleries for women was at the very top. This type of arrangement was common in Europe (Venice and elsewhere), and can be seen to good effect at the former Adas Israel Synagogue in Washington DC, opened in 1876 and today partially restored in a new location.
A previous owner of the former Shaarie Zedek, possibly as early as the 1920s, had converted the building to three stories be creating a floor at the gallery level (as was done much more recently at the former Chai Adam synagogue in Burlington, Vermont) and made other changes. The new apartment project has retained this interior division and the first floor, which formerly held the social hall, has been divided into five apartments. The project, however, as the above rendering shows, restores much of the original exterior appearance of the synagogue, including rebuilding the double staircase which once fronted the synagogue and linked it to the street.
In February 2014 Southern Jewish Life Magazine reported on the plans and that at the beginning of of construction, when later framing added around the front doors of the sanctuary was pulled out, a long-forgotten sign for Shaare Tefillah was revealed, and this is also being restored. In photos you can see the original cast iron columns which supported the gallery.
The Gates of Prayer congregation continues, now located in Metairie. The congregation began as the Jewish Benevolent Society of Lafayette in 1849 (Lafayette City is now the Garden District of New Orleans). In 1850 the group formally became the then-Orthodox Shaare Tefillah (Gates of Prayer). At first, like so many other new American congregations, the congregation rented space, and then bought the lot on Jackson Avenue in 1859. According to the congregation's history, during the Civil War, congregants hid the bricks that were going to be used for the building so they would not be confiscated. The cornerstone was laid in 1865 and the building dedicated on April 5, 1867. A red glass ner tamid (Eternal Light), purchased for the congregation in 1875, continues to be used in the congregation's modern sanctuary. You can read more about the congregation's history here.
In 1904, the congregation joined the Reform movement and after World War I, a growing congregation built a new facility on Napoleon Avenue, then an education and social center five years later. When the congregation moved from the Jackson Street synagogue ca. 1920, the building was subsequently used as a school, a storage facility and offices. The present-day Gates of Prayer synagogue was established in Metairie in 1975. The new facilities suffered over $1 million worth of damage during Hurricane Katrina, but continued to function. The congregation received wide attention for its welcome of the Orthodox Congregation Beth Israel of the Lakeview section of New Orleans, which was entirely destroyed. The Orthodox congregation used the Reform synagogue as their home from 2006 until 2012, when it built a new new synagogue on land purchased from Gates of Prayer, right next door, with a playground in between. This type of close relationship between congregations of different branches is not uncommon in smaller cities, and especially in the South. It is replicated to some extent in Austin, Texas, where congregations of the different branches of American Judaism co-exist in close proximity on the Dell Jewish Community Campus.
The Shaare Tefillah renovation project is one several renewal efforts along Jackson Avenue and in the neighborhood.