Wednesday, August 20, 2014

USA: Revisiting San Diego's First Beth Israel Building

San Diego, CA. former Beth Israel. Photo: Samuel D. Gruber 2014

 San Diego, CA. former Beth Israel. Photo: Samuel D. Gruber 2014

San Diego, CA. former Beth Israel, c. 1893.  Photo: San Diego History Center's Title Insurance and Trust Collection.
USA: Revisiting San Diego's First Beth Israel Building
by Samuel D. Gruber

[n.b. this entry was corrected and expanded on May 27, 2020]

I was recently in San Diego, California for a wedding and got to sneak out (with my sister Ruth Ellen Gruber) for a quick visit to the former Beth Israel Synagogue at Heritage Park.  Not only is it the second oldest extant synagogue building in California (the slightly earlier one is in San Leandro), its survival also is due to one of the earliest synagogue preservation efforts in the country (again, San Leandro is another example). The modest Romanesque-style wood synagogue was moved to its present location in 1978 to save it from demolition. I first visited the building more than twenty years ago. The building was first restored from 1978 to 1982, but in 2010 it was entirely refurbished as part of a multi-million dollar transformation of Heritage Park.  

I am particularly interested in the building's saga since the Jewish Community of Austin, Texas, is now preparing for a similar move of the B'nai Abraham Synagogue in Brenham, Texas (of which my great-grandfather was a founder). That 1893 Texas synagogue will be moved a further distance - all the way to the Dell Campus in Austin, where it will serve an Orthodox minyan, but also be available for community events. I'll be speaking about the pros and cons of such moves (including San Diego)  and other preservation strategies  in my keynote lecture at the upcoming annual meeting of the Southern Jewish Historical Society in Austin this October. 

The San Diego synagogue was built in 1889 at Second Avenue and Beech Street and served the congregation until 1926, when a larger structure was built at Third and Laurel (now Ohr Shalom Synagogue). The old building was sold and used as a bank and for other purposes until the Fraternal Spiritualist Church bought it in 1938. By the 1970s, with skyscrapers closing in on its location, old Beth Israel was scheduled for demolition. At the urging of local preservationists, the building was listed as San Diego Historic Site No. 82 on June 1, 1973, and this new status helped delay a demolition permit.  

Five years later (May 22, 1978), the building was listed on the National Register of Historic Places, one of the first American synagogues so designated. Ironically, though the designation helped lead to the building's survival, it was revoked, after the building was moved (local and state designation were unaffected). This is a conundrum that rescuers of buildings frequently face. The Secretary of the Interior's standards for building integrity are specific and can seem strict. Writing about the (lack of) designation from the National Park Service in 1983, Carol D. Shull, Chief of Registration at the National Register stated: 
"Although the building meets the special requirements of significance specified for moved buildings in the National Register criteria, it does not meet the standards of integrity that the National Register applied to moved buildings...We believe that locating the building in an artificial environment, such as a museum of theme park like Heritage Park, destroys a building's integrity of location and setting and creates a false sense of historic development and associations, one that may be more illustrative of contemporary perceptions of the past than the realities of the historic period associated with the property." [copy of letter in files of International Survey of Jewish Monuments].
More history of the building and congregation can be found here

In 1981, Henry Schwartz, historian of the San Diego Jewish community, was instrumental in saving the building and researched and wrote its history (read the entire article and notes here)  He wrote:
Their planners envisaged a large temple to accommodate expected future growth; on September 1, 1887, the San Diego Union noted that congregants were talking of a synagogue to cost $20,000. But the darkening clouds of a slump appeared in early 1888; property prices began to skid; hotels emptied; the population shrank to 16,000. Fund-raising became difficult. Some congregants thought prudence dictated postponing construction.
Others urged building. After all, San Diego was now a city, with many buildings and street cars. The Jews that remained were convinced of San Diego's bright future. Rabbi Freuder urged going ahead. In a High Holy Days sermon in 1888 he "strongly urged his hearers to renew their allegiance to the sacred faith by endeavoring to establish a permanent place of worship in San Diego." The hard decision was made: build.
The site and finance committees busied themselves. Two adjacent lots at the northwest corner of Second and Beech Street were purchased for $5,000. Samuel Fox recalled the congregation raised $3,500 and some $2,500 came from borrowing. The Beth Israel ladies put on an outstanding "Jewish Fair" that raised $1,500. Additional funds were raised by selling seats in the new temple.
Realism, however, forced a drastic paring down. Instead of a $20,000 synagogue, one was built that cost between $3,500 and $4,500. A Weekly Sun reporter found that most congregants preferred an edifice like the Keener Chapel of the Unitarian Church, a small, unpretentious structure, which they had previously rented for services. Bids were received in mid-July 1889, and construction commenced shortly thereafter.  No evidence has been found of an architect.
Carpenters erected a redwood synagogue. Similar to gabled Christian churches, it, however, had a rather unique squarish front facade. Double wooden tablets, symbolic of the Ten Commandments, stood at the pinnacle. Craftsmen made seven stained-glass windows embellished with the six-pointed Star of David. Painters covered the exterior with light brown paint and gave it a contrasting "chocolate" brown trim.
Inside the front entrance were two anterooms, with steps up to an organ loft. Inside the sanctuary four wooden arched trusses supported a ceiling painted sky blue. The side walls were painted French gray, with three round-arch windows painted yellow, blue and rose. A chandelier hung from the ceiling. At the front was a small, raised pulpit area. In the rear wall was the Ark of the Covenant, a wall insert that housed the torah (the five books of Moses). Above it hung an eternal light.
While the builders may have been looking at local church models, it is also likely that leading Jews were aware of the large square-fronted Romanesque style synagogue from Germany, illustrations of many of many of which were published. The synagogues of Kassel and Gleiwitz (now Gliwice, Poland) are the best known, but not the only examples.
Kassel, Germany. Synagogue (1826-1839, destroyed). Steel engraving by I. Robbock from Krinsky, Synagogues of Europe, p 315.

Gleiwitz, Germany (now Gliwice, Poland), Synagogue (1859-61, destroyed)  Photo courtesy of Virtual Shtetl.

The good times did not last. As Schwartz reports, by 1900 the congregation had dwindled to only fourteen families, not recovering from the economic collapse of 1886-88, and soon renting the building to other (non-Jewish) congregations to meet expenses. "The First Universalists rented the sanctuary for parts of 1893 and 1894. After the Universalists, the board rented the building to the Christian Scientists for ten dollars a month; from February 3, 1895 to December 27, 1905, the temple was also known as the First Church of Christ, Scientist."  Jewish life then picked up with an influx of Eastern European Jews after 1905.

After its relocation in the 1920s, Congregation Beth Israel didn't look back, and had little to do with the building until the early 1970s, when the congregation, led by history-buff Rabbi Joel Goor and congregant Jim Milch, decided to rescue it. Congregation Beth Israel repurchased the building for $10,000 and arranged to have it moved to Heritage Park in 1977, and then donated the building to the county. Restoration architect Robert Ferris oversaw the deconstruction - cutting the building in two, separating it from its foundation, and moving it to the Park. 

It sat untended for several years as funds were raised for the restoration, completed in 1988. It took nine years to raise the $450,000 to restore the building (San Diego Union, March 5, 1988), due in part to the passing of Proposition 13 which limited the availability of anticipated tax dollars for the project. Since then, it has served as a non-sectarian meeting space for all kinds of events, especially weddings and including Jewish b'nai mitzvot. More history of the move and renovation is given in a San Diego Jewish Journal article by Jessica Hanewinckel.

San Diego, CA. former Beth Israel. View from early 1900s showing changes including the addition of a front portico.
Photo: San Diego History Center's Title Insurance and Trust Collection.
San Diego, CA. former Beth Israel showing new ramp access to side entrance. Photo: Samuel D. Gruber 2014

San Diego, CA. former Beth Israel, new sign. Photo: Samuel D. Gruber 2014

San Diego, CA. former Beth Israel., interior. Photo: Samuel D. Gruber 2014
San Diego, CA. former Beth Israel, view to Ark. Photo: Samuel D. Gruber 2014

The building is owned by the County of San Diego and is still known as Temple Beth Israel, but in 2009 the Heritage Park leasehold was taken over by Pacific Hospitality Group, which initiated a $4 million dollar renovation of the park, including the synagogue building, and the renovation of the various 19th century buildings in the park, which were to be used a "premium hotel rooms," though this plan does not seem to have gone into effect.  A new identifying sign was added to the synagogue, which prominently announces the building's history. It is open to the public every and remains popular for weddings.
For Further Reading: 

Gillmon, Rita, 1988.  "Area's first synagogue will be restored," San Diego Union (March 5, 1988)

Hanewinckel, Jessica, 2010. “A Stained Glass Window into the Past,” San Diego Jewish Journal (July 2010). 

Harrison, Donald. "San Diego's Historic Places: The Original Temple Beth Israel," San Diego Jewish World (May 14, 2010).

Magid, Sally. "Moving the Structure Saves the Synagogue," Inspired, 9:1, 4 ff. [describes moving of four landmark synagogues: Adas Israel, Washington, D.C,; Shaare Shomain, Madison, Wisconsin; Temple Beth Israel, San Diego, Ca.; and Beth Shalom, San Leandro, Ca.]

O'Neil, Barbara, 1985. "First Jewish temple will flourish again," San Diego Union (Feb 4., 1985) 

Olten, Carol, 1989. "Temple restoration underway," San Diego Union (June 25, 1989)
Schwartz, Henry, 1981. Temple Beth Israel. Journal of San Diego History. 27 (4): 227-237.

1 comment:

chris miller said...

Some of these sculptors might interest you:

... especially Milton Horn:

(the above relief is still on public display, about a mile from my home)