An Historic Synagogue in an Historic Neighborhood

The original Adas Israel synagogue building, a fairly modest brick structure, is the oldest surviving synagogue building in the District and certainly the most well-traveled. Initially constructed at 6th and G Streets NW in 1876, it was moved once to 3rd and G, and then moved again—today—to 3rd and F. Steeped in the city's history, the building will form the core of the new Capital Jewish Museum, set to open in 2021. It's a lasting memorial as much to patience and perseverance as it is to the rich culture of Judaism in Washington.

Awaiting a new life, January 9, 2019 (photo by the author).

Very few Jews lived in Washington in the early part of the 19th century, not enough to form a congregation, until the Washington Hebrew Congregation was founded in 1852. As in many American cities, Washington's Jews were predominantly immigrants from Germany and Eastern Europe. Many came to Washington to make a living running small businesses, and after the Civil War they often made their homes near the Seventh Street commercial corridor, in what is now called Penn Quarter and Mount Vernon Triangle.

As was typical of mid-19th century immigrant congregations, Washington Hebrew's members were sympathetic to the growing Reformed movement in Judaism. They viewed progressive reforms as a way of adapting to their new homeland and were eager to demonstrate how well they could fit into a society dominated by Anglo-Protestant culture. However, not all members agreed that non-traditional worship practices, such as holding services in English and German, should be adopted. For a while, the more conservative congregants tolerated the changes, but the installation of an organ in 1869 was a turning point. Traditional services did not include musical accompaniment. Some 38 worshipers broke from Washington Hebrew and established Adas Israel as an independent, Conservative congregation—Washington's second Jewish congregation.

The fledgling group faced many obstacles. Though it soon purchased a small cemetery in Anacostia, it could not afford to buy a synagogue building. Instead, congregants used various rented spaces, including a room over a carriage factory on Pennsylvania Avenue that was plagued by leaks. Everyone understood that a proper synagogue would be essential to keep the congregation together for the long term. At one point, the possibility of acquiring General Ulysses Grant's former residence on Douglas Row was considered but could not be arranged. Finally, after years of effort, the group was able to raise the $4,800 needed to build a modest, new synagogue on the southeast corner of 6th and G Streets NW. Hope was high that the building could be completed in time for the July 4, 1876, centennial of the United States.
This drawing of the synagogue appeared in the August 8, 1908, edition of The Washington Post.
A brief notice in the Washington Critic-Record in March 1876 observed that construction was progressing quickly and further commented that “The plans furnished by Messrs. Lynch and Kleinman are a model of convenience and comfort, and when carried out will be an ornament to the northern part of the city.” (Max Kleinman, who is listed in city registers of that era as a draughtsman, is known to have prepared the drawings for the building. No records have survived to determine whether Millard F. Lynch, listed in city directories an architect, was also involved in the project.) When it was completed a few months later, the new house of worship—the first such building in Washington constructed specifically as a synagogue—was summed up as “a neat brick edifice, built after the manner of most synagogues, with two floors, the auditorium being in the second story.”

The plain, vernacular style of the building bears similarities with synagogues in Germany. To save money, its chief decorative elements—tall, slender windows capped with fan-shaped lunettes and brick archivolts—appear only on the two street-facing sides of the building. The low-ceilinged first floor, really a basement, served both as a schoolhouse and for religious services on weekdays. Sabbath services were held upstairs in the sanctuary, which could accommodate 150 men on the main floor and 135 women in an upper gallery along the sides and rear of the hall. The opposite wall featured a tall, curved wooden bay, which originally housed the Holy Ark. A small cupola on top of the gabled roof served primarily for ventilation.

Despite its modest appearance, the new synagogue was the subject of an elaborate dedication ceremony in June 1876. The sanctuary was decked out with flowers, garlands, and U.S. flags demonstrating the congregation’s patriotism. President Ulysses S. Grant, Senate President Pro Tempore Thomas W. Ferry, and Grant’s son Ulysses all attended, sitting on a special sofa that was brought in for the purpose. The little synagogue was packed, and anyone without a reserved seat was turned away from the three-hour event.

An undated, early 20th century view of the synagogue (bottom center) with the Pension Building (National Building Museum) to the rear. (Photo courtesy of the Capital Jewish Museum).
Once anchored in its permanent home, the congregation prospered, as its members had foreseen. By the beginning of the 20th century, a much larger building was needed. While some thought was given to building a larger structure on the same site, Adas Israel eventually purchased a new site two blocks away, at 6th and I Streets NW, where they dedicated their new synagogue in 1908. That building is now the Sixth and I Historic Synagogue.

Sixth and I Historic Synagogue (photo by the author).
The same year, the congregation sold the old synagogue to Stephen Gatti (1840-1919), a Genoese immigrant who lived nearby. Gatti had started out as a fruit merchant and began investing in real estate after he retired. He rented out the former synagogue at 6th and G Streets to a variety of tenants, including several religious groups. The St. Sophia Greek Orthodox Church held services in the sanctuary from 1910 to 1920. They were followed by the Bible Hall, Good Samaritan Chapel, and Mission of Life Church. Meanwhile commercial tenants opened shops on the lower, street level of the building, extensively altering the space over time. In the late 1960s, a barber shop and corner carry-out were run on the first floor, with the sanctuary above being used as a cavernous storeroom.

The synagogue building as it appeared in July 1969 (Source: Library of Congress).
By that time, the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority had acquired the whole block where the synagogue stood with plans to clear all 18 existing buildings from the site and use the space as a staging area to build the Metro subway system. A new Metro headquarters building—the Jackson Graham Building—would later cover the block. In the meantime, the synagogue was slated for demolition. The Jewish Historical Society of Greater Washington, working with members of Adas Israel, lobbied to save the neglected building from the wrecker’s ball. They negotiated a complex deal whereby the salvageable upper portion of the synagogue would be moved several blocks east to a disused plot of land at 3rd and G Streets NW, where it would be placed on a new foundation and restored by the historical society as a museum.

The synagogue (facing to the rear) is pulled along G Street past the General Accounting Office in December 1969 (photo courtesy of the Capital Jewish Museum).
Supported by federal grants and private donations, the move took place in December 1969. A special 28-wheeled dolly, pulled by a surplus Army tractor, slowly rolled the 270-ton building three blocks down G Street to its new home. Once it was off its original base, masons were able to use salvaged bricks from the old site in reconstructing the synagogue's foundation at 3rd and G. The interior of the sanctuary, which still included original moldings and other features, was also restored. Renamed the Lillian and Albert Small Jewish Museum after its major benefactors, the building reopened in 1975.

The synagogue at 3rd and G Streets NW, just prior to its second move (photo by the author).
The move, however, would not be the only one for the synagogue. When developers planned construction of the massive Capital Crossing project over the Interstate 395 expressway, they realized the synagogue would need to move again, this time one block to the south, at 3rd and F Streets NW. The developers struck a deal with the historical society to pay for the second move and also contributed a substantial amount toward a new museum to be built alongside the repositioned synagogue.

The synagogue on the move on 3rd Street, January 9, 2019 (photo by the author).
After arriving at its final destination, 3rd and F Streets (photo by the author).
The move was actually a two-stage process. In November 2016, the synagogue was moved off of its site to a "parking" spot on 3rd Street while construction of Capital Crossing took place on its old site and its new location was readied. Then in January 2019, the building was rolled a block south on 3rd Street to what is expected to be its final location. Unlike the arduous move 50 years earlier, this time a computerized platform mounted on 60 huge wheels seemed to effortlessly glide the building along, at one mile per hour, on its one-block route. Construction of the new museum complex around the synagogue building is expected to start soon. The museum will include three permanent and special exhibition galleries, a multipurpose auditorium/classroom, an interactive community lab, a collections archive room and office space. If all goes well, it will open in 2021.

Rendering of the Lillian and Albert Small Capital Jewish Museum (courtesy of the Capital Jewish Museum).
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Special thanks to Wendy Turman of the Lillian and Albert Small Capital Jewish Museum for her gracious assistance. Other sources included Laura Cohen Apelbaum and Wendy Turman, eds., Jewish Washington: Scrapbook of an American Community (2007); Lillian and Albert Small Jewish Museum Historic Structures Report (2001); Stanley Rabinowitz, The Assembly: A Century in the Life of the Adas Israel Hebrew Congregation of Washington, D.C. (1993); Eleni Silverman, Historic American Buildings Survey: Adas Israel Synagogue (1984); Nancy C. Taylor, National Register of Historic Places: Adas Israel Synagogue (1969); and numerous newspaper articles.

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