DC's First Synagogue to be Moved for Urban Development
In 1876, a group of European-born Orthodox Jews built the city’s first synagogue in downtown Washington. Since its construction, the building has been turned over to three congregations, converted into a grocery store and a barbecue joint, slated for demolition, saved and dubbed a historic landmark. In 1969 it was literally cut in half, torn from its foundation, and relocated to Third Street, where it was renovated and reopened as a museum owned by the Jewish Historical Society of Greater Washington (JHSGW) at 701 Third Street.
Now, as fate would have it, the structure is being moved again to make way for a deck above an entrance to I-395 south of Massachusetts Avenue, meant for high-rises and greenery where there is now only a recessed highway.
“It’s a great opportunity for the museum,” says Laura Apelbaum, executive director for the JHSGW. “In 1969 when we were initially moved, it was fortuitous that the triangular lot where we sit now was on 395. But when 395 went through, it scarred that part of the city – it cut off F and G Street. Even though we were saved by that, it has never afforded us the opportunity to tell the bigger story of Jewish life in the city.”
The temple, originally Adas Israel synagogue, was founded and built by around three dozen Jewish families angry over liberal reforms instituted at the Washington Hebrew Congregation, including the new practice of seating men and women together, the use of English-language prayers and the playing of Christian-style organ music during songs. Raising $4,800, they constructed the building in Washington’s “Synagogue Row,” which served downtown’s immigrants along the growing Seventh Street commercial corridor. President Ulysses S. Grant attended the dedication ceremony on June 9, 1876, the first time a U.S. president attended a Jewish religious service.
When the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority decided to build its headquarters on the block spanning Fifth and Sixth Streets, the brick synagogue was forced to find a new home or face demolition. Through the historical society’s efforts in the late 1960s, the building became a federal and city landmark, and collected both congressional support and a number of private donors.
At nearly 300 tons, the building, for the second time, will be delicately uprooted and moved by flatbed truck to a temporary spot. It will end up permanently at its new address at Third and F Streets.
“We’re going to regain the historic and religious orientation of the building,” says Apelbaum. “It will face East — Jerusalem — like it originally did. And we will have additional land with which to build a museum with gallery and educational space … in the same neighborhood, the same context that we were in originally.”