Our starting point is a grainy black-and-white photograph of the historic Adas Israel sanctuary circa 1903. If you squint hard enough, you can make out the rows of pews leading to the holy ark, barely visible in the background. Twin balconies run down either side of the room, held aloft by a series of columns. A two-tiered (or is it three?) chandelier hangs in the center of the room. When architects skilled in historic preservation take a closer look, they identify two chairs flanking the holy ark, guarded by a picket railing, while a square window glows overhead. The rest is left to the imagination.
Armed with a series of studies that have closely examined the history of the synagogue and each of its features, and guided by experts’ best advice, we are faced with so many remaining questions and decisions. How do we recreate and reimagine this space for a new generation while honoring the generations that built and sustained it? Our plans now call for a sound and light show to immerse visitors in the capital city in 1876, revealing the stories of the individuals and families who built and worshipped in this space. We want to recreate the whispers of the children on the back staircase, the creaks of the floor in the women’s balcony, the hum of prayers and conversation. To do that, projectors, lights and speakers will transform the walls and other surfaces using moving images, photographs and creative audio — supported by new structural steel and overhead sprinkler lines.
In order to bring those stories to life, we aim to preserve the historic fabric while making a dozen reality-facing trade-offs every day:
Do we rehang the fragile “lunette” stone on the front of the building that was the only identifying mark that remained by the mid-20th century of the one-time synagogue? Or do we replace it with a replica to preserve the original so that it can be viewed up close by new generations? Probably best to save the stone.
Do we keep the drafty, elongated upper-story windows (the glass was long-ago replaced) that let in the cold and condensation? Or do we replace them to secure our air-tight new home, knowing that we’re losing a bit of history to retain a longer-term future? New windows are on order.
Do we add a new railing to the precarious women’s balcony low-walls so that visitors can peer from above to today’s safety standards? Or do we preserve the original sight lines and keep visitors to the rear of balcony’s overhang? No visible railing, we decide.
With the originals long gone, do we rehang the gangly chandelier and 27 sconces that were purchased in the 1970s for the sanctuary, or do we save our pennies to create a custom replica of what the original lighting fixtures would have been? Still undecided on this one!
Do we design a decorative grille to shield views up into the dark cupola venting the building, as many other period synagogues have? And if so, what would it have looked like? Yes, a grille – design pending.
Since we no longer have the original Adas Israel congregation’s original ner tamid, eternal light, should we use the one we were given by Washington Hebrew Congregation from their original synagogue circa 1898, which fits the period but not the site? Or do we commission a new one that looks the part but loses the story? We’re leaning toward the former.
We want to project immersive multimedia onto the sanctuary’s walls, but the historic paint colors we’ve identified are too dark for projection. Do we compromise and paint a lighter color to enhance the experience, or do we stay true to the preservationists’ work? And how do we preserve the layers of paint that reveal the building’s story over time? Lighter paint with preservation…?
Each day, we Zoom-debate, argue amongst ourselves, wrestle with each of these choices, consult consultants and weigh our budget. And we do our best to balance the future with the past, to make choices that honor the landmark site and its stories, while anticipating its future uses and needs. We’ve already decided to turn one of the upper-story sanctuary windows into a doorway to allow for accessible access for new generations of visitors. We’ve chosen to leave most of the nicks and marks of 145 years of masonry repairs on the brick façade rather than “clean them up.”
So many choices, so much storytelling ahead. For these and each of the thousands of decisions still ahead of us, we will document the changes for the future, as those who came before kept records for us. And the story continues.
Author: Kara Blond, Executive Director