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The Whole Spiel

A Witness to History – 145 Years in the Making 

June 9, 2021

Historic sites don’t just teach us about history, they allow us to experience the past. By walking through the doors stories come to life, you become a character and you’re witnessing history through the eyes of the building. The walls with their layers upon layers of paint were backdrops and rugged floors have the memories of the past ingrained into them. All setting the stage for the lives of everyday people who came before us. They lived, rejoiced, cried and came together in these rooms. Celebrated key moments of their lives and overcame hardships with one another. The buildings, including this historic synagogue, witnessed it all.  

On a hot June day in 1876, the small Adas Israel congregation celebrated the dedication of the first purpose-built synagogue in Washington, DC. That same historic synagogue is now the home and the centerpiece of the Capital Jewish Museum and we’re celebrating its 145th birthday! The synagogue doesn’t just represent one group of people, but is a symbol for the everchanging landscape of Washington, DC. As Downtown went through many periods of divestment and reinvestment the life of the building changed with it. As the congregation outgrew the synagogue and built a new synagogue at Sixth and I, the building changed hands with the next wave of immigrants and became a cornerstone of the neighborhood, taking in new sights and sounds, playing a role in a new set of stories.  

Photo courtesy of CJM

The families and individuals who owned and utilized the space have each left their mark and given us a glimpse into their daily lives. The historic synagogue witnessed it all and we can see physical reminders left behind. There’s a small balcony that the women and children used during services, Saint Sophia’s Greek Orthodox Church placed a crucifix over the ark and the storefronts installed glass windows on the first floor. In fact, the lower half of the building needed to be rebuilt after the first move in 1969 because it’s believed the storefront windows made it unstable to lift the lower level.  

As communities moved on and the building sat empty it became the site for a different type of change – redevelopment. WMATA decided that the synagogue was in the way of its new headquarters location and was ready to demo before a group of community members discovered its history! They organized and lobbied the city to save the building and in 1969 the synagogue made its first move on wheels through the neighborhood. The building was put on wheels and moved two more times in order to preserve it and the stories it holds. 


Whether it was used as a house of worship, storefront or museum this building continued to progress with the neighborhood and the little synagogue that could is celebrating its 145th birthday todayWalking through the stairwell and sitting in the balcony the history of the building and the city overwhelm you and its easy to think about what life might have been like. Right now the historic building is busy getting prepped and ready for its next adventure, and we’re leaving our mark for the next generation to come. 


Historic Adas Israel synagogue (foreground) and National Building Museum, formerly the headquarters of the United States Pension Bureau, background, ca. 1905.