Tuesday, September 15, 2020

Getting Ready for Its Close-Up: Former Temple Freda in Bryan, Texas, to be Restored

Bryan, Texas. Temple Freda. Texas A & M Center for Heritage Conservation.

Bryan, Texas. Temple Freda. Photo: Brazos Heritage Society.

Bryan, Texas. Temple Freda. Interior in 1950s. Photo courtesy of Brazos Heritage Society.

Getting Ready for Its Close-Up: Former Temple Freda in Bryan, Texas, to be Restored

By Samuel D. Gruber

When the cornerstone of Temple Freda in Bryan, Texas was laid in 1913, the local newspaper wrote:

the synagogue is a neat little brick structure, modern in design, and when completed will be a monument to the pluck, energy and enterprise of those Jewish citizens who now reside in Bryan, and who are responsible and have the credit for its erection.” (The Eagle, Feb 17, 1913).   

The once “neat” but now deteriorated building has not been used for Jewish worship for more than half century, but now it getting a second lease on life.

In 2020, the restoration of Temple Freda in Bryan, Texas and its re-purposing as a public community space continues to move forward as part of multi-year effort by local preservationists and the City of Bryan. In 2017 the nascent restoration project received a $40,000 matching grant from the Texas Historical Commission, which enabled a start to the project. With additional support from a city Downtown improvement grant, the building was stabilized. Faculty and students from the Center for Heritage Conservation at the College of Architecture of nearby Texas A &M documented the preservation needs of the structure and prepared a full preservation plan and detailed digital model illustrating the building’s deterioration in 2018. The building has previously been documented by Texas A&M architecture students who helped list the structure on the National Register of Historic Places in 1983 and the Texas A & M team also created measured drawings for the Historic American Building Survey (HABS).

The city of Bryan now owns and cares for the Temple Freda property, but the plan is for an existing or new nonprofit organization to take on ownership and oversee the temple’s long-term management.

The small but nimble Brazos Heritage Society, a volunteer organization education and advocacy organization, has partnered with the city to raise awareness and help raise funds, and efforts are underway to fund Phase II. 

On October 27, the Brazos Heritage Society plans to participate in Brazos Valley Gives, a community-wide fundraising campaign for local non-profits. The goal is to raise at least $150,000 for the Temple Freda project.

To donate to the project go to https://www.brazosheritage.org/temple-freda-restoration-phase-i-b or you can participate in the Brazos Valley Gives campaign at https://www.brazosvalleygives.org/ on October 27. All donations received during Brazos Valley Gives are earmarked for Temple Freda.

Bryan, Texas. Temple Freda. Exterior elevation by
Texas A & M courtesy HABS.

Back in a blogpost of 2009, I mentioned Temple Freda Reform Congregation of Bryant, Texas, as a rare Jewish synagogue named after a woman. The Temple was named at its dedication for Mrs. Ethel Freda Kaczer, the recently deceased wife of the congregation's president.

I'm still interested in the building – now for several other reasons. For the last few years as part of a project with the College of Charleston, I’ve been researching synagogues and Jewish architects in the South. The modest but attractive Temple Freda building of 1912-13 is important as one of the few surviving Classical-style synagogues in Texas from that period between 1900 and 1930 when the Classical impulse was so widespread in the South. Temple Freda is a modest – but fine – example.

Bryan, Texas. Temple Freda. Photo: Larry D. Moore 2012 (Wikipedia).

Bryan, Texas. Temple Freda. Photo: Texas A & M Center for Heritage Conservation.

The International Survey of Jewish Monuments has also been busy inventorying American synagogue stained glass. Typical of period and style, Temple Freda has a fine set of stained-glass windows, too.

Bryan, Texas. Temple Freda. Stained-glass window. Photo: Brazos Heritage Society.

Importantly, I recently (re)learned that the building is almost certainly an early design by the Austrian-born Jewish architect Joseph Finger, who arrived in Houston in 1908 and was soon junior partner in the firm of Green & Finger (with Lewis Sterling Green), which, according to The Tradesman received the contract Temple in 1912.

Bryan TX. Temple Freda congregation has let the contract to Walter Cook of Houston for the erection of a brick synagogue. The plans for the building were prepared by Green and Finger, architects of Houston." (The Tradesman, October 24, 1912).

As the Jewish junior partner Finger was probably in charge. I have not yet found out much about architect Lewis Green. It is possible that he was Jewish, too, and thus gave the newly arrived Austrian immigrant his first professional position. Finger soon moved on to form his own firm which over many decades had great success.

He would go on to be a leading architect in interwar Houston, and nationally one of the most successful Jewish architects of the first half of the 20th century.  In synagogue architecture, he is best known for his 1926 Temple Beth Israel in Houston (now Heinen Theater of Houston Community College). This structure, built for Finger’s own congregation, was designed in a robust classical style. In 1935, Finger also designed the Temple of Rest Mausoleum for Beth Israel (where he himself is interred) in an Art Deco style. It is a fascinating to add Temple Freda to this progression through stages of “Jewish” classicism as a study of Finger’s development, but also as lens on American Jewish tastes and aspirations of the time.

Houston, Texas. Temple Israel. Joseph Finger, architect. Pencil Points, February 1933

Temple Freda is a fine example of a small classical style Reform Temple in the American South. As I have previously, the classical style became a new architectural “brand” for the Reform Movement after around 1900. More ornate versions built before World War I can be found across the south, but the style persisted and in 1917 we find, for example, the near-contemporary B’nai Israel synagogue in Spartanburg, South Carolina, similar to Temple Freda in many ways.  In Texas, there were several examples of Classical-style synagogues built in this period. Most, such as Houston’s Temple Beth Israel (1908), have been demolished and replaced by newer buildings. The former B’nai Zion in El Paso, built in 1912 in a style that mixed Greek and Gothic, has been used as church since 1927 and is well maintained.

Houston, Texas. Temple Beth Israel (1908). Photo courtesy William Rosenthall Collection, College of Charleston Special Collection.
El Paso, Texas. Former B’nai Zion (1912). Photo: Rogelio Rivero Cagigas / Wikipedia


Jews probably settled in Bryan in the 1860's. As in most contemporary communities, they met in member’s homes for worship. In 1912, land was sold by local businessman J.W. English, a member of St. Andrew’s Episcopal Church, for the token sum of $10 to the Jewish community with the stipulation that the land be used exclusively for “religious or benevolent purposes.”

The cornerstone-laying ceremony followed the masonic ritual which was standard practice in the South and much of the country. Construction moved quickly, and the dedication took place on May 20, 1913 with an assembly of rabbis and Texas dignitaries. The Eagle wrote that the Temple:

has been completed, standing forth in its beauty and symmetry, and was on last night dedicated, in a beautiful, sacred and solemn service, to the worship of the true and living God. The house was filled to overflowing by the members of the congregation, their guests from other cities, and their friends in Bryan, either to witness or take part in the dedication service, typifying in their coming together the spirit of brotherly love and Christian fellowship existing in Brian between the different denominations, nationalities and religious beliefs.”

Rabbi Henry Barnstein of Temple Beth El in Houston and Rabbi Henry Cohen of Congregation B'nai Israel in Galveston presided. The newspaper gave a full account and summarized and quoted much of Rabbi Cohen’s address.

Read more about the Jewish history of Bryan here.

Much of the Temple’s construction material was also donated by local citizens. The modest rectangular building was completed within a year. Its most distinctive feature is the Greek aedicula-type entrance way, with a pressed metal entablature and pediment surmounting two wooden Corinthian columns with plaster capitals. A plaque with the name “Temple Freda” is inserted in the wall beneath the portico, above the double entrance doors. The Parker Street facade has nicely detailed tan brick walls beneath a pressed metal classical entablature. The side and rear walls are red brick.

The brick walls, metal decorative elements, and wooden columns are all in need of repair.

Inside the arrangement was austere – a small vestibule flanked by restrooms opens to a simple rectangular hall, where the floor gently slopes to the bimah at the far end opposite the entrance. But the entire space was embellished with a series of simple but elegant stained-glass windows which prided a cool and calming light for the space. Many of these are memorial windows donated by congregants. There is a pressed metal ceiling, and a small meeting room is located at the back.  Few flanked a central aisle.

Bryan, Texas. Temple Freda. Interior. Photo: Timothy Hurst / The Eagle.

Bryan, Texas. Temple Freda. Exterior elevation by
Texas A & M courtesy HABS.

Despite the joyous dedication in 1913, the congregation struggled to survive, especially after the onset of the Great Depression in the 1930s. Despite a brief boom during World War II, decline continued until the move to College Station. As in many small towns, there was never a full-time rabbi.

That congregation has moved on. The building stopped serving as a regular Jewish house of worship back in the 1950s. Many of the congregants, and certainly almost all newly arriving Jews in the area, were affiliated with Texas A & M University; they began to attend a new Hillel synagogue on campus at nearby College Station. In 1968 Congregation Beth Shalom, was formed to serve the Jewish community of the Brazos Valley. Beth Shalom, which since 1990 is housed in a modest and attractive mid-century brick former church building, includes many Temple Freda members and maintains Temple Freda's Cemetery.

Bryan, Texas. Temple Beth Shalom, 101 North Coulter Drive. Photo: Google Streetscapes.

Bryan, Texas. Temple Beth Shalom, 101 North Coulter Drive. Photo: Courtesy of Larry Dangott and Congregation Beth Shalom via Julian Preisler.

After regular Jewish use of Temple Freda ended, it was maintained for the congregation by a Texas A & M physicist William Bassichis, and for many decades served as an available public space often used by small congregations of various faiths. But without regular maintenance and some major repairs, the structure decayed. In 2013, amidst a boom in Downtown redevelopment, the citizens’ group “Friends of Temple Freda” was formed to save the building. Bassichis ceded management to the City of Bryan during the restoration process which after a period of organization, began in earnest in 2017.

For now, the stained-glass windows (some of which had already been damaged due to neglect or vandalism) and original furnishings have been removed for safe keeping while the building is stabilized and restoration work proceeds to repair the roof, reinforce the brick walls, and secure the overall exterior water handling  envelop.  Mechanical systems will also be upgraded as part of the restoration.

Bryan, Texas. Temple Freda. Photo: Brazos Heritage Society.

When restored, the building follow the path of many other rescued religious and public buildings around the country and serve as a venue for weddings, receptions, educational events, concerts, and more. In this, they will follow the example of "Save the Temple Committee" in Corsicana, which saved the synagogue there for community use back in 1987. Though no one could have predicted it at the time, that wonderful Moorish style building, which was re-furbished as secular space, now sometimes serves again as a place of Jewish worship, too.

Read more here: https://www.brazosheritage.org/temple-freda-history