Saturday, August 12, 2017

Preserving Synagogue Ruins I: Seattle's Temple De Hirsch Sinai

Seattle, WA. Temple De Hirsch, 1908 (demolished).
Seattle, WA. Remains of Temple De Hirsch, 1908. Photos: Samuel Gruber 2016.
Seattle, WA. Remains of Temple De Hirsch, 1908. Photos: Samuel Gruber 2016.

Preserving Synagogue Ruins I: Seattle's Temple De Hirsch Sinai
by Samuel D. Gruber

A few weeks ago I wrote about the uncertain fate of the ruins of the Beth HaMidrash Hagadol Synagogue in New York and promised to take a look at how other places have preserved ruins or fragments of destroyed synagogues. Sometimes these fragments are the results of archaeological excavation, as is the case in South America, the Caribbean, and sometimes in Europe, and of course, Israel. Sometimes they are the result of violent destruction, as in Europe where many synagogues were only partially destroyed in the Holocaust but their ruins were left intact in the subsequent years. Other times natural calamities have claimed buildings. An earthquake in Vidin, Bulgaria; a landslide in Pitigliano, Italy; and fires in New York and elsewhere. 

I do not plan on addressing this topic systematically, chronologically, or in any other obvious order. Rather, over the next few weeks I will post a series of vignettes which demonstrate a variety of approaches; some successful, some not. The need to protect, preserve and present ruins is hardly unique to Jewish heritage sites. Many of the lessons and methods considered by stewards of ruined synagogues derive directly from the field of ancient and medieval archaeology. 

Remains of Temple De Hirsch in Seattle

In 1993, the congregation of Seattle, Washington's  De Hirsh Sinai Temple, which was formed 1971 in a merger between Temple De Hirsch (Seattle, founded 1899) and Temple Sinai (Bellevue, founded 1961) decided after long deliberation to demolish the historic sanctuary of Temple De Hirsch at Union Street and 15th Avenue. This building already was little used. For several decades it had functioned as an often empty annex to the larger modern style sanctuary building built in 1960 and a smaller modern chapel added in 1974.

Seattle, WA. Temple De Hirsch Sinai, 1960. Photo: Samuel Gruber 2016.

The unsuccessful efforts to reuse the old synagogue as a concert hall are well documented. The old sanctuary, listed as a Seattle Landmark in 1980, and placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1984, was known for its fine acoustics. The congregation held off demolition for several years while strong effort was made to transform the space into the "Landmark Concert Hall," a recital hall with about 550 seats but unfortunately, the organizers of the new project could not raise the necessary funds in the time given. Carrying the empty and now-derelict building risked dramatically raising the congregation's insurance rates for all their buildings, and the demolition was carried out. A small park or plaza was created on the site.

Seattle, WA. Site of former Temple De Hirsch. Photo: Jonah Gruber 2016.
I was last at De Hirsch Sinai on a cold wet day last winter, so no one was using the outdoor space, and of course it looked dreary. In good weather,  however, the paved space is a flexible one and can serve many purposes. Since it is still owned by the congregation and part of the greater synagogue facility, its identity and programming are fully "Jewish." But the space is open to the public, and can be used as a little park or play area by anyone in the neighborhood who wants. While the new building faces a busier commercial street, this site of the original sanctuary is now on the rear of the lot an still part of a residential neighborhood.

Seattle, WA. Site of former Temple De Hirsch. Photo: Jonah Gruber 2016.
The compromise solution was to preserve the space of the old building as a small paved park with a few elements of the building preserved. Notably, the entrance stairs, the four Doric columns of the entrance portico, and part of the entrance wall with the main doorway were kept and these now give access to the small plaza. A stylized representation of the original facade - which had already lost the tops of its towers in the 1950s - is affixed to the wall of another building, and visible from the little park.

Seattle, WA. Site of former Temple De Hirsch. Photo: Samuel Gruber 2016.
The demolished sanctuary was designed by architect Julian F. Everett in the Neo-Classical style and was dedicated May 29, 1908. An adjacent Temple Center opened in 1924, housing a religion school and other organizations; a wing was added in 1951. The current sanctuary at 16th Avenue and Pike Street—the opposite corner of the same block as the old temple—was completed in 1960. The old sanctuary was virtually unused from 1974 when a new chapel was built, and many of its interior elements were moved to the new space. 

Sometimes historic buildings are destroyed because the land they sit on is valuable and will be developed. Or sometimes after the demolition the building is replaced with a new version - so that the mission of the church or synagogue is continued in a more up-to-date form. In Seattle, neither of these scenarios was the. The congregation had already built their new iteration of a sanctuary on an adjacent property, and despite demand for real estate in Seattle, the lot of the old sanctuary was not rebuilt. 

The building was demolished because the congregation had no pressing need for it - and because the cost of maintaining it was getting higher and higher without commensurate benefits. After attempts to redevelop the sanctuary into a performance and concert hall failed, the congregation could not continue to carry the building.  Instead it was demolished and many of its parts were saved the ark, and chandeliers and large stained glass window were removed to the modern chapel. And a few distinctive parts of the structure were saved to frame a pocket park. Thus, some memory of the old sanctuary can be accessed through the recognition and reuse of the some of its parts.

Seattle, WA. Temple de Hirsch Sinai. Chapel, 1974. Photo: gpsmycity

Seattle, WA. Temple de Hirsch Sinai. Chapel, ark from old sanctuary. 1974. Photo: Samuel Gruber 2016.
Seattle, WA. Temple de Hirsch Sinai. Chapel, Moses window from old sanctuary. 1908/1974. Photo: Samuel Gruber 2016.

Seattle, WA. Temple de Hirsch Sinai. Chapel, chandelier from old sanctuary, 1908/1974. Photo: Samuel Gruber 2016.
This blogpost is not intended to debate the Seattle demolition decision. There have been some close looks at this process as a case study in historic preservation, where there was mostly good will, but many competing factors. Rather, I want to highlight the decision that was made about how to treat the site after the demolition - since it is of continuing relevance today. I'll pick up this discussion soon in "Preserving Synagogue Ruins Part II."


Jan Polatschek said...

What a shame. Such a dramatic and attractive building replaced by a modern soulless slab. The "saved" items inside the new shul look so lonely and out of place.

Samuel Gruber said...

The interior is only of the chapel.The sanctuary itself is not a slab and is more interesting - and huge. But I'm sure many felt - and feel - it is soulless compared to the more intimate and ornate older building.