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New Tenants in the House of God

By Frank Van Riper
Special to Camera Works

Doubtless because of the awful mess we have been in for so long over religious hatred and strife – and compounded now by the quagmire in Iraq – I found a phone call from my friend and colleague Bill Lebovich strangely reassuring.

If you said Bill was an architectural photographer you would be right, though he likely would prefer the title architectural historian.

He also is author of the book Design for Dignity/ Studies in Accessibility, detailing in elegant photographs how everyday architecture and design can be made both accommodating and beautiful to people of all abilities.

Recently though Bill has concentrated on a peculiar aspect of religious life in Washington DC and its surroundings: how Jewish synagogues have morphed over time into black Baptist churches – and sometimes back again.

Armed with a 4x5 view camera, he is documenting these changes and will have a large exhibition of this fascinating bit of religious and social history beginning next January at the Sumner School galleries in downtown DC. The project, entitled "Shared Sacred Spaces," is supported by the Washington Architectural Foundation, though Bill still would welcome additional backing. [See below.]

"The project of documenting historic synagogues goes back to the early 1980s," Bill said, "and I discussed the idea with prominent synagogue architects, Percival Goodman and Norman Jaffee....I would on occasion, over the years, photograph Washington, DC and other synagogues primarily in 35mm slide film, and I have given an occasional lecture on the subject."

"The project really started a little over two years ago when I realized that the former synagogues in Chinatown faced possible demolition or conversion to other [than religious] use as the success of the MCI Center has drastically increased real estate values in the area."

"What drew me to the former synagogues turned African-American churches was that this was a national phenomenon that no one seemed interested in. Yes, people writing about synagogues would note that they became churches, but the minute that happened they lost interest. It [was] like saying their importance as a building ceased. But I felt the buildings had just entered a new phase..."

There long has been a closeness between African Americans and Jewish Americans, though those ties have been subject, sadly, to strain and resentment.

Each group once existed on the fringes of an American society that at one time was overwhelmingly white and Protestant. Each group was an outsider.

Growing up in New York City in the 1950s and going to City College of New York in the middle of Harlem in the 1960s, it was hard for me to appreciate how profound that separation from the mainstream actually was. New York then – as now – was, if not a melting pot, then at least (switching metaphors) a smorgasbord of cultures and religions, not always mixed thoroughly. In the Bronx of my youth, in a Jewish neighborhood within blocks of Yankee Stadium, I (a half-Dutch, half-Italian Catholic) was the minority, not the Frieds or the Goldbergs or the Needles. What few black kids my friends and I played with and who were our classmates at PS 90, lived only a few blocks away, in tenements not much different from ours.

In college, the close relationship of blacks and Jews seemed even more apparent, especially on St. Nicholas Terrace near 125th St., the main campus of CCNY uptown. There, black students were a far larger cohort of the student body than they had been in my elementary or high school, while the white population still was predominantly and, to me, familiarly Jewish. Still, CCNY back then was largely a white island in a black community. I never will forget, as a young student journalist in 1966, covering a meeting of local citizens who were upset over the decision of the liberal-leaning CCNY student government to invite former Mississippi governor (and segregationist) Ross Barnett to address the student body on the 1966 Civil Rights act. This was an exquisitely tone-deaf exercise in political evenhandedness from a student body that had sent its share of Freedom Riders down south in support of civil rights, and it had some fearing violent protest. But Barnett came and went with not much more than a few scattered catcalls.

What I remember most, though, a few days before the ex-governor came to campus, was standing in the back of that all-black community meeting and sticking out like the reverse of a raisin in the sun. Inevitably, I was asked to defend my college's decision to invite a segregationist to speak in what really was the heart of the black community. I rattled on a bit about disagreeing with someone while defending his right to speak, not making any converts but at least getting a respectful hearing. At the end of the meeting, talking to a few folks out on the street in the humid evening, I was approached by a young man who talked with a moving intensity about how he always had dreamed of going to "the college on the hill."

Suddenly, anything Ross Barnett might have had to say seemed trivial and small.

It was migration, of southern blacks into the Washington area, and of Jewish congregants into the adjoining suburbs, that led to the religious changeovers that Bill Lebovich is documenting. Basically, houses of worship followed their congregations, reflecting the religious and ethnic makeup of those who prayed in them. Sometimes, those changeovers were manifold. Corinthian Baptist Church at 5th and I Sts., Bill Lebovich notes, actually began as a 19th century Presbyterian church. Then from 1906 to 1956 it was Ohev Sholom congregation. Finally, reflecting the growing African-American population of the neighborhood, Corinthian Baptist purchased the building in 1957.

Then there is the second Adas Israel congregation. It was dedicated as a synagogue in 1908, and in 1951 was acquired by Turner Memorial AME Church. Just recently, it was rededicated as the 6th and I St. Synagogue.

Lebovich's all-seeing Horseman 4x5 monorail camera (usually sporting a wide-angle 90mm lens) reveals wonderful detail, especially how congregations tailor ornamentation to reflect their values and beliefs – but sometimes only so far, if the budget is tight.

Thus, it is not unusual to see the top and bottom points on the familiar six-pointed Star of David removed from a stained glass window of a synagogue-turned Baptist church – a cost-effective alteration that removes the window's previous religious connotation while still leaving a wonderful link to its past.

For me, the best example of this kind of ecumenism is Bill's lobby photograph of the 19th St. Baptist Church. In the back is a stained glass panel showing a praying Jesus; in the foreground is an inlaid Star of David on a mosaic floor.

"To be honest," Bill says, "most people were skeptical, almost suspicious [about the photography project] thinking I was trying to sell them images. But the response to the printed images has been highly favorable with people such as Rev. Darryl Walker (Turner AME) saying he could not believe how sharp the images were."

Sharp, to be sure, and reflecting a society in which religious differences not only are tolerated but accepted and even at times celebrated.

"My undergraduate degree is in anthropology," Lebovich declares, "and in that discipline I remember that in African or Asian locations a holy site remained a holy site, for different religions at different times. And I felt what was happening with these synagogues was the modern, urban, western equivalent to what had happened in prehistoric, non-western societies."

Individuals seeking more information about the "Shared Sacred Spaces" project or organizations wishing to offer support can contact Bill Lebovich at Architecturalphoto@mac.com.

Frank Van Riper is a Washington-based commercial and documentary photographer and author. His latest book is Talking Photography (Allworth Press), a collection of his Washington Post columns and other photography writing over the past decade. He can be reached through his website www.GVRphoto.com.

© Bill Lebovich
DC photographer Bill Lebovich's "Shared Sacred Spaces" project will include this dramatic view camera image of the newly rededicated 6th and I St. Synagogue. Early in the 20th century it had been the second Adas Israel congregation, then served until recently as Turner AME Church.

© Bill Lebovich
Greater New Hope Baptist Church was acquired from Washington Hebrew Congregation in 1953. Note Star of David stained glass windows (which now have been replaced.)

© Bill Lebovich
Jewish Star of David has been only slightly modified in this stained glass window at Corinthian Baptist Church in downtown DC.

© Bill Lebovich
Lobby of 19th Street Baptist Church still has mosaic floor from when it was B'nai Israel Congregation. Stained glass window at back now features a praying Jesus.


Talking PhotographyAlready acclaimed as the photographer's bedside companion, Talking Photography (Allworth Press, $19.95) is award-winning Post photography columnist Frank Van Riper's ten-year collection of his favorite photography columns and essays. This lavishly illustrated paperback already has garnered rave reviews from all walks of photography for its breezy, informative style and unbounded enthusiasm for making pictures.

To order directly, go to: Allworth Press

 Van Riper on Van Riper

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