District's first synagogue slated for move to make way for mixed-use development

By Derek Kravitz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, August 3, 2010; B01

It's been called the "Small Jewish Museum That Could" and the "Wandering Building" after the medieval tale of the doomed Wandering Jew. And for good reason.

In the 134 years since a splinter group of European-born Orthodox Jews built the city's first synagogue in downtown Washington, it 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; literally cut in half and torn from its foundation; and moved, inch by inch, to Third Street NW, where it was renovated and reopened as a museum in an area that has followed the city's economic fortunes from blighted to prosperous to recession.

And now the Lillian and Albert Small Jewish Museum needs to be moved again -- twice -- for one more tiring and costly journey to enable three prime blocks, as if a miracle, to be added to downtown's buildable area. The New York-based Louis Dreyfus Property Group struck an agreement this spring with the Jewish Historical Society of Greater Washington to help move the building so a deck can be added above an entrance to Interstate 395 south of Massachusetts Avenue NW, with high-rises and greenery where there is now only a recessed highway.

"It's an odd confluence of events," said Laura Cohen Apelbaum, executive director of the Jewish Historical Society of Greater Washington. "The synagogue has always somehow been saved by its geography, in that it's never been torn down. But it's been hindered by where it is, too."

The 273-ton structure has to be delicately uprooted and moved by flatbed truck -- first to a temporary spot, perhaps on the lawn of the nearby National Building Museum, and then to its permanent home at Third and F streets NW.

"This is a once-in-forever move," said Stuart Zuckerman, past president of the Historical Society's board of directors, which worked for nearly two years to arrange the unusual transport. "And we hope it will give us added exposure."

It could be several years before the Small Museum is planted in its final spot, said Sean Cahill, Dreyfus's vice president of development. It's also not the first time the synagogue has faced a "wing-and-a-prayer-type move," Zuckerman said.

When the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority decided to build its headquarters on the block spanning Fifth and Sixth streets NW, 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 engendered both congressional support and a horde of private donors.

On a December morning in 1969, the second and third floors of the building were severed from the ground floor, lifted and placed on a dolly nine feet off the ground and rolled three blocks to 701 Third St. NW. The first floor, which had been outfitted with big bay windows so shopkeepers could sell their wares, was too weak to make the trip. Hundreds watched the 2 1/2 -hour move, which in its complexity caused one small fire after a gas main burst, broke off branches from elm trees and killed a pigeon. The building arrived intact.

"It really reignited the interest in Jewish history and culture in Washington. It reawakened a lot of people," said Phyllis Myers, a preservationist who has served as a research consultant for an exhibit on synagogues in Washington.

The Adas Israel synagogue was erected in 1876 by a group of about 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 hymns. The cast offs raised $4,800 to construct the red-brick 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 at a Jewish religious service.

When the congregation outgrew the 25-by-60-foot building, Adas Israel moved in 1908 to a grander location at Sixth and I streets NW. The old synagogue was left behind, later serving as a Greek Orthodox church, St. Sophia's, and then the Evangelical Church of God. After World War II, it became a carryout restaurant (that, oddly enough, sold pork barbecue), a grocery store and then a lunchroom.

Its history was all but forgotten until a student of Jewish architecture and religious art, Evelyn Levow Greenberg, rediscovered the building's past and launched a spirited campaign to save it.

"Who would have ever thought it would be moved again?" said Henry H. Brylawski, 97, who as president of the Jewish Historical Society helped oversee the temple's first move 41 years ago. "We had no money and the city wasn't really all that interested in the building, but they were nice enough to go along with it. But now, it's taken on a lot of meaning."

Washington never drew the numbers of working-class European Jews who established enclaves in cities such as Baltimore, Philadelphia and New York. In the 1850s, the District had fewer than 3,000 Jewish residents in a total population of 40,000. In the 20 years following World War II, Jews left Northwest in droves, scattering to Maryland and Northern Virginia. Much of Seventh Street NW became rundown, especially after the city's devastating riots in 1968.

But the historic Adas Israel sanctuary has remained one of the area's enduring landmarks, Brylawski said. Wolf von Eckardt, The Washington Post's former art and architecture critic, once called it a "dear and most lovable little building of utmost simplicity."

The Small Museum is open nine hours a week, and a full walking tour takes about 10 minutes. It is estimated that a few hundred people tour the building each year.

Something positive will come out of the move, officials say: The synagogue will now face east, the proper orientation for Jewish places of worship.

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