The Temple That Traveled

Sunday, August 14, 2005

Mayor Anthony A. Williams's proposal that Metro move its offices from downtown Washington to Anacostia as part of his riverside development initiative is a reminder of the constancy of change in urban neighborhoods and the value of thinking small, as well as big, in redesigning cities.

Some 35 years ago, as part of the construction of the Metro system, the transit agency -- with federal help -- decided to put its headquarters on the block spanning Fifth and Sixth streets NW near Chinatown. The area, now a hot real estate market, was blighted then and ripe for clearance, but it included a small, nondescript brick building with a carryout on the first floor. The officials at the time may not have known that the building at Sixth and G streets NW was the city's first structure that had been constructed specifically as a synagogue; it was dedicated in 1876 as the home of the then-new Adas Israel congregation.

The synagogue was one of a triad -- along with Ohev Sholom and the Washington Hebrew Congregation -- serving the religious and communal needs of the immigrant Jews who lived and worked along the growing Seventh Street commercial corridor in the late 19th century. Eventually, the Adas Israel congregation outgrew its modest synagogue, and in 1908 it moved to a grander building at Sixth and I streets NW.

The original synagogue was slated for demolition in 1968, but it was spared through the research and advocacy of historian Evelyn Greenberg and her colleagues at the Jewish Historical Society of Greater Washington. Federal and city landmark designation followed, along with congressional intervention and generous private donations to supplement public funds.

Of course, in those days it was unthinkable that such a small building would get in the way of Metro, so the 273-ton structure was lifted off its foundation, placed on a special dolly and rolled to a small, triangular site at Third and G streets NW.

Despite its infelicitous surroundings of freeways and bland buildings, the old synagogue was restored by piecing together documentation about its original interior, which had been altered. Today, it is the home of the Lillian and Albert Small Jewish Museum, and it is run by the historical society. A small plaque on Metro's headquarters marks the synagogue's original site.

The irony, of course, is that the neighborhood from which the little synagogue was plucked is experiencing a full-tilt revival, benefiting from city incentives, private investment, historic-district designation, residential development and collaboration with cultural organizations. Metro's headquarters is valued at "upward of $75 million" [front page, Aug. 4].

Not incidentally, the Jewish immigrant legacy is a core feature in this neighborhood's revival. The Adas Israel congregation's 1908 building was sold to the Turner Memorial AME Church four decades ago and restored by developers when the church moved to the suburbs. Now once again a synagogue, it enlivens the area with religious activities, educational programs, performances and exhibits. Walking tours organized by the Jewish Historical Society attract sellout crowds that look at vintage photographs and trudge to Third and G streets to imagine the modest, federal-revival building as the anchor of the old, tight-knit immigrant community on Seventh Street.

Saving Adas Israel in the 1960s was a triumph, rightly celebrated in an exhibit on Jewish Washington now at the National Building Museum. But its fate reflected the still-nascent preservation values of the time. Our ideas about how to revive cities and save historic resources have been transformed in the past 40 years. Now it is unlikely that such a building would be evicted from its original site.

If Williams's proposal to move Metro to Anacostia makes economic and political sense -- a big "if," to be sure -- then perhaps an old wrong could be righted too, and the small museum could be put on wheels once again and rolled back to the site where it belongs. An impossible dream? Probably. But it is not too farfetched to think that, as part of this move, we could reimagine ways to connect this uprooted building more sensitively to its authentic place in our urban landscape.

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