Wednesday, November 9, 2016

A Jewish Gem of the South: Temple B'nai Israel in Natchez

Natchez, MS. Temple B'nai Israel. H. A. Overbeck, architect, 1905. Postcard, Souvenir Post Card Company, New York, William A. Rosenthall Collection, College of Charleston. 
Natchez, MS. Temple B'nai Israel. H. A. Overbeck, architect, 1905. Photo: Samuel D. Gruber 2016
A Jewish Gem of the South: Temple B'nai Israel in Natchez
by Samuel D. Gruber 

Last weekend I had the great pleasure of spending many hours over three days in the sanctuary of the temple B'nai Israel in Natchez, Mississippi, one of the loveliest and most comfortable Jewish spaces in the South. built more than a century ago, the room still works well for Shabbat services and as a meeting hall for a modest-sized conference such as the just-concluded Annual Meeting of the Southern Jewish Historical Society (SJHS). I was last at the Temple in 1992 - and it seemed then that the place was about the close, the small congregation disappears. But remarkable the stalwarts held on, and the now even smaller congregation remains devoted to the building, its history and the traditions and memories it embodies. But still it is scheduled to close - sometime soon - and transition has has been planned now for decades into a musuem and cultural center administered by the Institute of Southern Jewish Life (ISJL). Unfortunately, the decade of diminished capabilities have taken their tool and the building needs work. ISJL will need to raise considerable funds to ensure this Jewish gem will last another century.

Inside rows of very comfortable curved pews following the new 20th-century preference for wider seating (for wider bottoms?) and sloping backs, sweep across the broad interior. All seating is good, with excellent sight lines to the bimah and Ark and a sense of closeness no  matter how far. This same modern version of the old "broad-house' synagogue design was being pursued elsewhere about the same time - notably at the much larger Isaiah Temple designed by Dankmar Adler and built 1998-1900 in Chicago.

Natchez, MS. Temple B'nai Israel. H. A. Overbeck, architect, 1905. Sanctuary. Photo: Samuel D. Gruber 2016
Natchez, MS. Temple B'nai Israel. H. A. Overbeck, architect, 1905. Sanctuary. Photo: Samuel D. Gruber 2016
You can get a great 360 degree view of the sanctuary at 
http://www.synagogues360.org/synagogues.php?ident=united_states_035

B'nai Israel is especially loved for its brilliantly color and patterned windows, and its classical style Ark of dazzling white marble.

Natchez, MS. Temple B'nai Israel. H. A. Overbeck, architect, 1905. Sanctuary windows. Photo: Samuel D. Gruber 2016
Natchez, MS. Temple B'nai Israel. H. A. Overbeck, architect, 1905. Sanctuary window. Photo: Samuel D. Gruber 2016
B'nai Israel is one of a group of related classical style synagogues erected across Mississippi shortly after the turn of the 20th century. I've written before about the rise of Classicism as the "brand" style of the Reform Movement at the turn of the 20th-century, but as I've been researching the this and similar building for the up-coming on-line exhibit Synagogues of the South for the College of Charleston, I've adopted a slightly more nuanced view.

After all, the leap in design from the previous Temple, which burned down in 1903 is not so great as in the case where classical style Temple radically replaced earlier Moorish style ones (as in Atlanta, GA and Birmingham, AL). H. A. Overbeck, who had already designed a synagogue in Dallas prepared plans for the new structure. The cornerstone for the present building was laid in July, 1904, and the building was dedicated March 25, 1905, with Rabbi Isaac Mayer Wise of Cincinnati and over 600 others in attendance.

Natchez, MS. Temple B'nai Israel. H. A. Overbeck, architect, 1905. Portico detail. Photo: Samuel D. Gruber 2016
Natchez, MS. Temple B'nai Israel. H. A. Overbeck, architect, 1905. South side, former terracotta or stucco medallion now missing. Photo: Samuel D. Gruber 2016
The synagogue is designed as a tight block on a high foundation. A protruding porch, which serves as a small entryway-vestibule is reached by a slight of steps from the street, flanked by two pairs of tall smooth ionic columns set on pedestals, close to the facade. The entrance atop the steps and between the columns is a big arched doorway. The columns support and entablature and a pediment, and these dominate the building’s outward appearance. Inside, a small dome on a high drum sits over the sanctuary which is subtly lit through its high-quality stained windows that punctuate the building’s sides.

The sanctuary has a seating capacity of 450. The centerpiece of the building is a magnificent ark of Italian marble, located right under the new organ (listed on the National Register of Historic Organs) now, which congregants played at most services. With an additional balcony over the entrance (presumably for extra seating), the temple was built to house an ever growing congregation. The building is a testament to the wealth and prominence of Natchez’s Jewish community at the time. And yet, by 1907, B’nai Israel had reached its peak size with 145 members.

Stay tuned for some more posts about this building and the time, style and challenges it represents.
 
Natchez, MS. Temple B'nai Israel. H. A. Overbeck, architect, 1905. Balcony over entrance. Photo: Samuel D. Gruber 2016
Natchez, MS. Temple B'nai Israel. H. A. Overbeck, architect, 1905. Organ loft over Ark.. Photo: Samuel D. Gruber 2016

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