When Turner Memorial African Methodist Episcopal Church put its downtown sanctuary on the market, the real estate ad described it as "suitable for a nightclub."
Four blocks away, in the tiny offices of the Jewish Historical Society of Greater Washington, Executive Director Laura Cohen Apelbaum had other ideas. She knew the building had housed two of the city's most venerable congregations: Turner since 1952 and Adas Israel Synagogue for nearly a half-century before that. Apelbaum's grandparents were married at Adas; her father's bar mitzvah took place under the soaring, domed roof.
Even as the church trustees were reluctantly negotiating with a buyer intrigued by the nightclub possibility, Apelbaum launched a flurry of phone calls.
As a result, the church leadership next week will close on a different deal. Washington Wizards owner Abe Pollin and two local developers -- Shelton Zuckerman and Douglas Jemal -- have offered to buy the red-roofed building at Sixth and I streets NW for $5 million. They plan to turn the building into a Jewish museum and community facility that eventually could house a working synagogue again.
"It's such a beautiful, beautiful place," said Pollin, a member of Washington Hebrew Congregation in Cleveland Park. "There's no way, as a Jew who has a deep feeling for our heritage . . . that I could allow this to become a nightclub."
Turner's pastor, the Rev. Darryl E. Walker, said his congregation, which is relocating to more spacious quarters in Prince George's County, is thrilled that the building will remain in religious hands.
"We were in a position that we had to take the best offer we had," he said. The nightclub proposal, he said, "did not fit well."
Pollin, 79, and Zuckerman, 20 years younger, grew up in Washington and remember downtown's "Synagogue Row": Ohev Shalom at Fifth and I, Adas Israel at Sixth and I, and Washington Hebrew just south of I Street on Eighth Street. On High Holy Days, police would close off I Street, so families could walk to worship services and gather in the triangular park across the way.
The synagogues were built by the families of Jewish merchants who ran stores on Seventh Street and often lived in apartments upstairs. The synagogues thrived until mid-century, when Jewish families moved out of downtown -- and often out of the city. The three buildings had been sold to churches by 1957.
Jemal, the grandson of Egyptian and Syrian Jews, is less familiar with Washington's old synagogues, which were built by families of European descent. But he attended one of Apelbaum's programs and came away intrigued by the Jewish roots of the neighborhood, where he owns property, including the former Woodward & Lothrop department store, several restaurants near MCI Center and the site of a planned apartment building.
Jemal and Pollin are players in the revitalization of the East End, where more than 2,000 luxury apartments are planned or under construction, restaurants and entertainment venues are booming and the office market remains strong. They and Zuckerman say their goals for the former Adas site fit perfectly with the situation there, because new apartments eventually should fill with young professionals, some of whom are likely to be Jewish.
They envision a thriving preschool and Hebrew school for families who work or live downtown. There could be Sabbath prayer services on Friday evenings for young singles, followed by a dinner in the basement dining room; community Seders for those who otherwise would be alone on Passover; or worship space for some of the many congregations that rent church space or move from place to place.
"In the long run, we want it to be a working congregation," Zuckerman said. "We're not in a hurry, and we're not under any financial pressure."
The men say they are interested in meeting with several groups that have Jewish archives or artifacts or experience with Jewish museums. They will talk early next year with Apelbaum and her board of directors about giving the historical society desperately needed space for records and exhibits.
The society now operates the Lillian and Albert Small Jewish Museum out of the original Adas building, a tiny structure that was a synagogue at Sixth and G streets NW from 1876 until 1908 and is now at Third and G streets.
Shalom Baranes, a Washington architect who recently led a renovation at Ohr Kodesh Synagogue in Chevy Chase, will help with improvements at the Sixth and I building and restore the few details that have been changed.
The historical society has original light fixtures -- bronze with a Star of David motif -- which may be reinstalled. An elderly Adas member is said to have the replica of the Ten Commandments that once hung above the ark that contained the Torah scrolls. Most of the stained glass is original, save for a large rose window and two smaller windows that had featured Stars of David and were replaced by widows with purple crosses.
"It's very, very special to have it back again," Jemal said. "This is something I could not let go away."
Apelbaum said she hopes to get permission to use the sanctuary for educational and cultural events starting soon after Turner moves out in March. She is looking forward to the day when the society's walking tours can show tourists what the building used to look like inside.
The tours start at the Small Museum and include the old Washington Hebrew building, now Greater New Hope Baptist Church, and the old Ohev Shalom, now Corinthian Baptist Church.
Corinthian still has Stars of David carved at the ends of its pews and above its main entrance on I Street. After 45 years, that congregation, too, is looking for new space, likely in the suburbs.
Should the congregation find a location, church administrator John Johnson said yesterday, the downtown site will be put up for sale.