By Michael Good | SDUN Columnist
Restoring an historic property is something of a spiritual calling, and for the congregation of Ohr Shalom Synagogue, it was that and more.
Not only did synagogue members have to worry about electricians and plumbers, nervous neighbors and pesky building inspectors, balancing the need for wheelchair-access bathrooms with the need to preserve historic architecture and, most important, raising money to pay for it…. they also had to answer to God, perhaps the toughest critic of all.
Rabbi Scott Meltzer must have felt a little like Moses in the wilderness at times, except Moses didn’t have to contend with drywall contractors. Or building permits. Or the Historical Resources Board. But finally, after years of fundraising, planning, permitting, and construction, the restored building has been dedicated, and pretty much all that’s left is to install the donor plaque, which is right now on a truck somewhere between the East Coast and San Diego.
God seems pleased—well, at least, there’s a sort of glow about the place. And the building has received a secular blessing: SOHO, San Diego’s Save our Heritage Organisation, has bestowed on it a Sacred Places Award. All that’s left is to finish paying for it. (By the way, it’s not too late to make a donation!)
Churches have steeples, mosques minarets, but temples don’t have a particular architectural style. This gave William Wheeler, the architect who, back in 1926, designed the temple at the corner of Laurel Street and Third Avenue, a lot of freedom, of which he took full advantage. This was the era of revival architecture—Spanish Revival, English Tudor Revival, Egyptian Revival—but Wheeler was inspired by another revival style, Mediterranean Revival, which architect Alfred Alschuler had employed for Temple Isaiah in Chicago. Like the Egyptian style, Alschuler’s take on Mediterranean Revival, with its Byzantine, Moorish flavor, was prompted by an archeological discovery—not King Tut’s tomb, but an ancient synagogue in Tiberias (in Palestine). Though Wheeler isn’t Jewish, he threw himself into the project with a sort of religious fervor. We don’t know if he prayed, but he certainly read his Bible.
In a San Diego Union-Tribune story from 1925, the designer of the Balboa Theater and many other now-historic structures explained how he planned to capture, through architecture, As for the latter question, in nothing less than the creation of the earth. Like Michelangelo, he started with the ceiling: “Beginning at the top of the dome the first day is expressed by these words: ‘And God said, “Let there be light,” and there was light.’” Wheeler came to the interview prepared with Scripture, which he offered as inspiration for the various pictures and symbols he planned to work into the dome. There were fish and birds (the fifth day), the sun, moon and stars (day three), and the Garden of Eden (the sixth day). God appeared as a hand—as in Ecclesiastes. But he also appeared as a pillar of fire, or a pillow of clouds (from Exodus).
After completion in 1926, the building was modified over the years (the dome required repairs after only a decade), and some elements, such as the elaborately textured and painted walls—and the original dome—didn’t survive. In fact, the passage of time wasn’t particularly kind to the structure, and by the start of the 21st century, the place was in serious need of repair, and maybe a little divine intervention. In 2001, Temple Beth Israel, which had been the original tenant, moved on to new digs in University City. That’s when Ohr Shalom got involved, eventually buying the two original buildings (Wheeler also designed the now-attached social hall). An adjacent school, which was built much later, was also part of the purchase, and is now a charter school run by another organization.
Susie Meltzer, past president of the synagogue and a member of the building committee (and Rabbi Scott Meltzer’s aunt), explains that from the beginning they knew the place needed a little work.
“It was a six-year process, in terms of planning,” she says, as we take seats in the pristine sanctuary, where sounds are muffled, adding to the aura of quietude. “There were meetings with the congregation, just like when you’re remodeling your house.”
But when you remodel your house, you usually don’t have a building committee and a few hundred interested parties.
“This was a challenge,” she admits. “But we wanted the congregation to have input. There were specifics about the sanctuary. They wanted to bring the bema (the pulpit) closer to the congregation. They wanted a center isle. Even though it’s not part of the Jewish tradition, they wanted an isle for weddings. The social hall, the same thing. How are we going to use the social hall? Where are we going to put the bathrooms? What about a second floor? Do we want to invest in a second floor?”
As for the latter question, in for a second level for offices and classrooms, incorporating it into the original building footprint. They created a new entrance as well, where the two buildings had earlier been joined, making a place for that in-transit donor plaque.
Many of the other changes were less glamorous but essential: new electrical, plumbing, heating, painting, carpeting and earthquake retrofitting. They also opened up a light well behind the north-facing stained glass windows, which had previously been enclosed in shadow. Fortunately, the original windows were intact, although they required extensive restoration. As with the dome, Wheeler wanted the windows to tell a story—in this case the story of the Jewish people. With a little prompting, Meltzer points out the symbols and explains what they mean. Some 86 years after the fact, Wheeler’s message still comes through.
“The menorah—the seven-stemmed candlestick—is the symbol of the Jewish people,” Meltzer said. “There are two of them in the south window, flanking a dove with a branch. The dove—that was a symbol from Noah’s ark. …The wine glass is a Jewish symbol. We say prayer over wine. And the Torah scroll, that’s what’s behind the ark at the front of the sanctuary.” She points out other symbols as well: a citron fruit that “you have to order today from Israel.” It’s a symbol of Sukkoth, a fall holiday. “Because we were an agricultural society, Judaism incorporates seasonal holidays,” Meltzer explains. “For Sukkoth, you should live out of doors in the fall, and you should harvest fruit. And people actually build a little fall tabernacle, and it’s just outside under the stars and families still do that. And the snake, I assume it’s a symbol of the Garden of Eden. The ram’s horn—that’s a symbol of our High Holidays. The sacrifice of Isaac, where he sacrificed a ram instead of his son. These seem to be pretty traditional Jewish symbols.”
Then, Meltzer takes me to the front of the sanctuary, to the ark, where the Torah is kept. There are several behind the carved wooden doors. The Torah, including the Pentateuch, or first five books of the Bible, is written on animal skins, rolled up onto wooden scrolls, with carved handles, and wrapped in velvet. Some of the books have an embossed silver cover, decorated, of course, with symbols. They’re very old, but still used regularly.
If any religion was built for restoring historic places of worship, it’s Judaism. There’s a reverence for history built right in. And after all those years of wandering, sometimes figuratively, sometimes not, there’s also a longing for permanence, for home. The congregation’s pride in its new home is evident in the care taken to restore it. When the synagogue was built in 1926, Rabbi Meltzer explains, Temple Beth Israel’s congregation was itself on the move, to the north, from downtown. By the time Temple Beth’s new synagogue was built in University City, the congregation had moved out to the suburbs. But Ohr Shalom’s members are young, diverse (including Jews from Argentina and Mexico) and urban—many live right in the neighborhood. Rabbi Meltzer wants Ohr Shalom to be recognized as part of the Uptown community. He’s hoping that the refurbished social hall, with its commercial grade kitchen, will be used for community events (it’s available for rent) and the 86 year-old-building will become even more a part of the Banker’s Hill community, which has enough other historic places of worship that it could just as easily be known as Sanctuary Hill. In the 1920s, when Ohr Shalom was built, many San Diego neighborhoods were closed to Jews, people of color and foreign birth, and back then, a sanctuary really was a sanctuary—from prejudice and persecution.
Susie Meltzer asks if I’ve ever attended a Jewish service, and extends an invitation. For anyone into historic preservation and history, Ohr Shalom deserves a visit. There’s much to contemplate here, gazing at the stained glass windows, where one of San Diego’s more famous architects has hidden a treasure trove of ancient symbols and woven an old, old story in glass. Maybe there is something sacred about restoring an historic building. And maybe—sometimes—God really is in the details.