Synagogue 'a living testament' to city's Jewish history

After close call with wrecking ball, city's first synagogue restored, expanded

March 22, 2010|By Edward Gunts | ed.gunts@baltsun.com

Baltimore's historic Lloyd Street Synagogue was almost torn down in the late 1950s to make way for a parking lot. An architect was hired to prepare scale drawings of the structure, so there would be a record of it after it was gone.

Now the 1845 building is bustling with activity, after a $1 million restoration and the opening of a lower-level gallery designed to extend its reach as a center of education and tourism.

The Jewish Museum of Maryland, which now owns the synagogue, opened the gallery Sunday as the latest addition to its Herbert Bearman campus. Hundreds of visitors came to hear a concert in the sanctuary and tour "The Synagogue Speaks," a $300,000 exhibit that traces the history of the building at 11 Lloyd St., Maryland's first synagogue and the third-oldest synagogue still standing in the country.

The exhibit opening was the culmination of a series of events held to mark the end of the restoration project and the 50th anniversary of the museum, established in 1960 to save the synagogue from the wrecking ball. It followed a formal rededication of the building on Thursday that drew dignitaries from Maryland's religious, political and business communities, including Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake and Archbishop Emeritus of Baltimore William Cardinal Keeler.

The synagogue is "a living testament to Baltimore's Jewish history and Maryland's history of religious freedom and tolerance," Rawlings-Blake said. "It is also a great attraction for heritage tourism."

The building is the cornerstone of Maryland's Jewish heritage, said Avi Decter, executive director of the Jewish Museum of Maryland. "It was the first site of the Jewish Historical Society in the 1960s; it was the impetus for development of the Jewish Heritage Center in the 1980s and it remains a principal theater for the museum's interpretive and educational programs."

As part of the restoration, the synagogue got a new roof, new heating and air conditioning systems and sprinklers. Its exterior was repaired and an unstable wall was shored up.

Since 1845, architect Robert Carey Long Jr.'s Greek Revival building has been occupied by three congregations: the Baltimore Hebrew Congregation from 1845-1889, St. John the Baptist Roman Catholic Church from 1889 to 1905 and the Shomrei Mishmeres Ha-Kodesh from 1905-1960.

The exhibit details the history of the building and its occupants. It presents the synagogue "not just as an interesting piece of architecture, but as an artifact that reveals the history of the people who worshiped here," said co-curator Deborah Weiner.

During his visit, Keeler described the building as a "sacred place" that "embodies the great themes of immigration and pluralism" in America, with its successive congregations. "As a synagogue and as a church, this building represents the dialogue of different faith communities ... that continues into the present day."

Decter said the exhibit gallery adds "a new dimension" to the museum, enabling visitors to learn the synagogue's history without taking a guided tour. "Now you can have a self-guided tour," he said. "It changes the whole equation."

The museum staff is already working on plans for the next expansion, a wing that will house exhibits, collections space and offices. Fifty "is the new 18, and we are beginning anew," Decter told visitors Sunday. "Even turning 50, the museum has in it a good deal of fire and light."

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