Friday, October 18, 2019

Tracing Syracuse's Jewish Buildings I: Former Beth Israel

Syracuse, NY. Former Congregation Beth Israel (now New Beth Israel Messianic/Christian synagogue), 601 Irving Avenue. Randall & Veddar, architects, 1926. Photo: Samuel D. Gruber 2014. 
Syracuse, NY. Former Congregation Beth Israel (now New Beth Israel Messianic/Christian synagogue), 601 Irving Avenue. Randall & Veddar, architects, 1926. Photo: Samuel D. Gruber 2014.

Tracing Syracuse's Jewish Buildings I: Former Beth Israel

by Samuel D. Gruber

The announcement this past summer by the leaders of Temple Concord (Temple Society of Concord) that the congregation plans to sell its 109-year-old National Register-listed building to a Georgia-based real estate developer is distressing for many reasons. It is heart-breaking to think that the majestic Classical-style building, one of the oldest, best-designed, and still well-maintained synagogues in Upstate New York, may be demolished. And no matter what, if the congregation leaves it will mark the effective end of the Jewish presence in historic Syracuse after nearly 170 years; Concord would probably follow other congregations and Jewish institutions east. And though Temple Adath Yeshurun, which left its University Hill home in the late 1960s, is technically within the city limits, its location on Kimber Road, its architecture, and its outreach is almost entirely suburban. True, in Syracuse, the city and suburbs are closely linked and at their boundaries hardly distinguishable. The the tight urban grid of downtown Syracuse - the first Jewish neighborhood, and the grid of the second neighborhood on University Hill, is very different from the suburban sprawl around the former villages of of Dewitt and Manlius.

All of the 19th-century Jewish structures in the city are long gone; the last vestiges were demolished during the post-World War II "urban renewal" frenzy that demolished most of the old immigrant neighborhood of the 15th Ward. But already in the 1920s, three congregations moved up University Hill, one Reform, one Conservative and one Orthodox. These buildings remain, but in the last fifty years only Reform Temple Concord (1911) was still used for Jewish purpose.

Temple Concord, and the nearby Conservative and Orthodox synagogues built in the 1920s are purely urban in design and outlook. The employed historicist styles, and all three facades look west toward the city's downtown. Temple Concord, designed by Alfred Taylor with nationally prominent (and Jewish) architect Arnold W. Brunner as consulting architect, was planned as a civic as well as a religious monument and serves as connective link in the Classical chain (now the Connective Corridor) that runs from the Onondaga County Courthouse on Columbus Circle, designed by Archimedes Russell and Melvin King (1904-1907) to the SU quad buildings designed by Revels and Hallenbeck (1906 ff).

Syracuse, NY. Temple Concord. Alfred Taylor and Arnold W. Brunner, architects, 1910-11. Photo: Samuel Gruber 2013.
Syracuse, NY. Former Temple Adath Yeshurun, Gordon Wright, architect, 1922. Now Hotel Skyler. Photo: Samuel Gruber 2011.

Syracuse, NY. Former Congregation Beth Israel, 601 Irving Avenue. Randall & Veddar, architects, 1926. Photo: Samuel D. Gruber 1997.

The following discussion of the history and architecture of the former Congregation Beth Israel is derived from a draft National Register of Historic Places nomination I wrote in 2014 as part of a citywide Religious Properties Survey compiled for the Syracuse. to my knowledge no action has yet been taken to list the building on the Register.

Former Congregation Beth Israel

The former Orthodox Beth Israel is the building located further west - closest to the old Jeiwsh neighborhood where much of its congregation still resided. is located on the southeast corner of the busy intersection of Irving Avenue and Harrison Street. The building is the earliest extant purpose-built Orthodox synagogue building in Syracuse. When built, congregation Beth Israel was the premier Orthodox synagogue in Syracuse. 

This area was once near the heart of the Jewish Neighborhood in the 15th West of Syracuse. Today, it is on the northwest edge of the large complex of medical buildings between University Hill and the I-81 highway. When the original synagogue was completed in the 1926 it was in a residential neighborhood. Now the area is almost entirely institutional and commercial. The large unadorned Institute for Human Performance is located to the north across Harrison Street, and dwarfs the Byzantine style New Beth Israel. The tall 1970s former Rosewood Heights Nursing Home, recently transformed into  market-rate residential apartments.

The congregation was founded by Eastern Europe Jewish immigrants who presumably did not feel comfortable in the German–speaking Temple Society of Concord, then still an Orthodox congregation.

The following notice appeared in the national Jewish newspaper The Israelite on September 29, 1854:
Syracuse, NY -The new congregation of this city to which we referred in a previous number, consists of Englishmen, Polanders, and Dutchmen, who severed form the old congregation, on account of the Hazan whom they thought was ill-treated. They are well organized, elected a Hazan who is also teacher, Shochet, and Mohel, and are reported as a promising society. The beautiful Mayer’s Saloon has been rented and furnished for a temporary synagogue.

Syracuse, NY. Congregation Bath Israel (Grape Street Shul). Architect unknown, 1856. Demolished. Photo: B. G. Rudolph, From a Minyan to a Community (reprinted from The Hebrew Standard).

In 1855 this new congregation dedicated its first purpose-built synagogue, a brick Gothic-style building on Grape Street (now Townsend St.). It was subsequently known as the Grape Street Shul until it moved to its new building in 1926. In the 1920s the congregation decided to build near the old neighborhood because the synagogue served older and often poorer Jews, and  orthodoxy required that Jews travel to synagogue on the Sabbath (Saturday) on foot. It was decided to stay close to the old Jewish district even though there was already evidence of a Jewish demographic shift to the east (towards the Westcott area), a migration that was in full force by the 1950s.

Syracuse, NY. Former Congregation Beth Israel (now New Beth Israel Messianic/Christian synagogue), 601 Irving Avenue. Randall & Veddar, architects, 1926. Photo: Samuel D. Gruber 2014.

Following traditional Jewish practice, the synagogue is oriented west-east, with the façade facing west catching the late afternoon light, and also looking downhill toward the city center. In the 1920s, before the building of high towers and the raised interstate viaduct, the synagogue facade was probably visible from parts of Downtown, too.

The former Ark wall was situated on the east in the direction of Jerusalem. The site rises sharply to the east and the north flank of the building reflects this. The building is rectangular in form, with a rear three-story office and classroom extension at the east end that extends a few feet closer to the property line and rises a story higher than the main sanctuary block. The main block is articulated as a two story building, introduced by one bay deep entrance area, approached by broad front steps, and entered through a tri-partite entryway. The original doors have been replaced by one of glass and metal (aluminum?) An additional entrance a street level on Harrison Street was for women heading to the interior galleries.

The façade is flanked by small vestigial towers topped by small hemispherical domes. The entry block roof-line is lower than that of the main space, and it is flanked by two small. There is a full raised basement the length of the building, much of which is lit by street level windows. The exterior of the double-level sanctuary space is articulated on the flanks with five tall arched windows, each broken midway with a decorative panel. The window openings correspond to the interior main space (originally for men) and gallery space (originally for women).

The building’s most distinctive public feature is its façade, designed in the Byzantine style, a popular historicist style for synagogues in the 1920s. This may be the only Byzantine-style building in Syracuse. The identifying elements of the style are the dominant triple round arches supported by unadorned applied columns and unadorned cubic capitals, typical of Byzantine architecture. Also, the side arches of the entrance are blind, filled with masonry of alternating yellow brick and white stone, another common Byzantine motif.

Overall, the simple geometry of the building’s massing, the use of chamfered corners, and the over plain and flat wall surfaces are also indicative of the Byzantine style. At New Beth Israel almost all the Byzantine style elements are part of the decoration. Other Byzantine synagogues elsewhere in the country built in the 1920s experimented more with spatial geometry and massing. One reason the style was popular with Jews was an association with recently discovered Byzantine-era synagogues in Palestine, a position articulated by Chicago architect Alfred Altschuler in American Architect-The Architectural Review, in 1924 and thus was probably known to architects Randall & Vedder.

Above the entrance is a large attic level plaque that extends the entire width of the façade. On this was originally inscribed in Hebrew the name of the synagogue and a scriptural passage. This was subsequently filled in and the “shadow” of the original lettering is only partially visible. Above the inscribed panel, supported on volutes, is a small raised circle inscribed with a six pointed star (the Jewish star or Star of David).  Aside from the Hebrew inscription, this was the only Jewish symbol on the building exterior.

According to the Syracuse Herald (April 12, 1925) the new building was designed to have on the first floor “an auditorium capable of seating 500 people, and above this will be a balcony with a seating capacity of 250. An annex for business and school rooms will comprise the rear end of the building. In the basement will be a large room, to be used for entertainments, dinners, and miscellaneous functions. A kitchen will adjoin it.”  According to newspaper accounts the synagogue cost $135,000 to build, and was dedicated on September 7, 1926.

Syracuse, NY. Former Congregation Beth Israel (now New Beth Israel Messianic/Christian synagogue), 601 Irving Avenue. Randall & Veddar, architects, 1926. Photo: Samuel D. Gruber 2014.
By the 1950s, however the synagogue's location had become problematic. Orthodox congregants who were moving east wanted a synagogue to which they could easily walk. The area's residents were mostly African-American, and there were some modest tensions between Jews and Blacks. The synagogue suffered some incidents of vandalism and a bomb scare. According to B. G. Rudolph, historian of the Syracuse Jewish community:

“by building on the corner of Irving avenue and Harrison Street the synagogue remained on the periphery of the former neighborhood.  During the previous two decades, practically all the members had moved out of this part of the city. As the Jews left, Negro families looking for cheap housing moved in, and soon the new Beth Israel was surrounded by a Negro neighborhood. Children playing on the streets would break windows, and other acts of damage occurred. In the fall of 1958 they had a bomb scare…later that year, fourteen of the stained glass windows were found broken.”  In 1963 the building was sold to Bethany Baptist church for $100,000, and the church took immediate possession. (Rudolph pp 208-210).
The Byzantine style of this former Orthodox synagogue was popular for synagogues in the 1920s, but this is the only example built in Central New York.  In addition to serving as the home of one of Central New York’s leading Jewish congregations for forty years, the building also housed Bethany Baptist Church, a leading black Baptist congregation (now located in a new building at Beattie Street on the city's Eastside.

Syracuse, NY Former Temple Beth El. East Genesee Street. Nicholas Goffredo, architect, 1965. Photo: Samuel D. Gruber 2007
Syracuse, NY Former Temple Beth El. East Genesee Street. Opened 1965, closed 2007. Photo:Samuel D. Gruber 2007.
Syracuse, NY Former Temple Beth El. East Genesee Street. Opened 1965, closed 2007. Photo:Samuel D. Gruber 2007.
The congregation then merged with Orthodox Poiley Tzedeck, and the new congregation, renamed Temple Beth El, built a new synagogue on East Genesee Street that was dedicated on September 11, 1965. That congregation closed in 2007 and the building now serves a Slavic Pentecostal Church.


Alschuler, Alfred S.  “Isaiah Temple, Chicago, Ill.,” American Architect-The Architectural Review, V. 126 (1924), 624

Gruber, Samuel. D. American Synagogues: A Century of Architecture and Jewish Community (New York: Rizzoli, 2003).

“New Beth Israel Plans Synagog [sic] to Cost $100,000,” Syracuse Herald (April 12, 1925).

“New Synagogue Opened in City,” Syracuse Post Standard (September 7, 1926)

Rudolph, B. G. From a Minyan to a Community: A History of the Jews of Syracuse (Syracuse: Syracuse University Press, 1970).

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