By Dave Schwab
On Aug. 11, public officials, historical preservationists and representatives of the Jewish community joined to salute improvements to an historical Park West landmark: The $4.2 million renovation of Ohr Shalom Synagogue at 2512 Third Ave., now in its final stages.
Built between 1925 and 1926, the synagogue was designed by noted San Diego architect William H. Wheeler who also designed Balboa Theatre. His treatment of the stately Ohr Shalom building, with its dominant domed roof, octagonal sanctuary and Middle Eastern decorative motifs, is one of the foremost examples of Mediterranean Revival, an American architectural style that caught momentum around the mid-1920s.
Scheduled to be demolished about 12 years ago, the synagogue found a friend in Bruce Coons, executive director of the Save Our Heritage Organisation, a nonprofit founded in 1969 to preserve San Diego’s historic architecture and landmarks. Coons said the landmark building should be protected and applied to have it included in The National Register of Historic Places. That application is still pending.
Coons said the temple is a “natural” for register inclusion.
“It was designed by a master architect, William Wheeler, the Byzantine style architecture itself is quite rare and, historically, it qualified,” he said.
The synagogue’s recent renovation drew high praise from those at the Aug. 11 public ceremony, including San Diego County Supervisor Ron Roberts.
“I applaud those who favor saving, and renovating, important parts of San Diego’s history,” he said. “I especially cheer those like the Ohr Shalom congregation who actually go out and raise the dollars to turn a vision into reality. The entire San Diego community will be enriched by supporting the completion of this important renovation. This building is a goldmine of history and it is part of a cluster of the most important buildings in San Diego.”
The Ohr Shalom congregation began the refurbishment in January 2010. Work entailed a complete restoration of the interior, specialized treatment to the once-vibrant stained glass windows and intricately carved wooden door, improvements to the façade, structural reinforcements and basic updates such as plumbing, central heating and air-conditioning. Additional amenities such as a new sound system, fresh paint, carpet, seating and a brand-new kitchen were also included.
Ohr Shalom is notable not only for its architecture but for the part it plays in the San Diego community, Ohr Shalom Rabbi Scott Meltzer said. He pointed out that the congregation’s decision to renovate the building will offer service to the broader community as a meeting center and kitchen for the homeless once refurbishment is complete.
“The building’s an institution, having been in San Diego for 85 years,” Meltzer said, explaining how its classic architecture is surrounded by similarly historic structures. “It’s been significant not only to the Jewish community but to the larger community.”
Meltzer said he constantly runs into San Diegans who tell him they’ve attended a wedding or a bar mitzvah or some other cherished non-religious event at the synagogue.
“A great many organizations and agencies have shared or rented this space because of its proximity to Balboa Park and the downtown,” he said. “It’s served as a shelter, a food distribution site—whatever the needs of the community were in general—because of its geography.”
More importantly, Meltzer said, the temple site has been Ohr Shalom congregation’s “home” for the last decade, and it’s been treated accordingly.
There was never any doubt about burnishing the historic structure to restore its luster. Meltzer said it just came down to a question of finding the best way to go about it.
“We didn’t want to build a museum. But how do you take a building that was built in 1925 and create a 21st century building that still looks and feels and has that same flavor that it did in 1925 with all the wonderful, memorable historic things that have happened over those 85 years?” he said.
The refit has been a problem-solving challenge in terms of finding ways to put modern plumbing and electrical in a structure designed for earlier, simpler technology. And then there was the task of retrofitting the building to make it seismically stable.
“We started working on an engineering evaluation of the building six years ago, figuring out how to preserve this piece of San Diego’s heritage while recreating a functional synagogue,” Meltzer said.
The rabbi added that the congregation has collected 80 to 90 percent of the total $4.2 million cost of the temple’s renovation.
“We just passed the 22-mile mark of the marathon (26 miles),” he said of the fundraising. “We have about $600,000 outstanding. We had enough money to do the historical renovation.”
Meltzer said Labor Day has been targeted to hold the first program in the new and improved Ohr Shalom Synagogue—just before the Rosh Hashanah High Holy Days.
“We’ve worked really hard but the end is in sight,” he said.
SOHO’s Coons noted Ohr Shalom was the second major Jewish temple built in San Diego. The first was Temple Beth Israel in the late 1880s. That facility has since been restored and relocated to Old Town’s Heritage Park.
Coons said the best thing that can happen with preservation of a historic building such as Ohr Shalom is for it to get used for “the purpose for which it was originally intended.”
“You don’t always get that,” he said.
Now Ohr Shalom can continue its tradition of being a community hub.
“Hopefully it will be an active center of social life in San Diego for another couple hundred years,” Coons said. “It will be a center of joys and sorrows for the entire Jewish community and the community at-large. It’s a very prominent location on Laurel in the midst of a great set of Victorian and Irving Gill-designed buildings. It’s just a terrific building. We didn’t want to lose it.”