Temple architecture

150 years ago, the Jewish community built a temple in the city center. Can it regain its former glory?

The Temple of Israel in downtown Wilmington is the state’s oldest Jewish place of worship. (Port City Daily / Amy Passaretti)

WILMINGTON – The sentry standing at the corner of Fourth and Market streets is North Carolina’s oldest Jewish place of worship. The Temple of Israel is a beacon of history, a snapshot of Moorish Revival style architecture and is home to Wilmington’s Reform Jewish community.

Built in 1876 for $ 20,000, roughly the equivalent of $ 500,000 in 2021, the historic temple, currently closed to the public, needs urgent repairs to reopen.

“We’re back to raising the same amount they raised when they built it,” said Steve Unger, a member of Restoration 150 – the campaign launched in October to help restore the temple to its former glory.

The 150 restoration pays homage to the building’s history, with 2021 marking the 150th anniversary of the founding of the Temple of Israel congregation in 1871.

The synagogue closed in 2020 during the pandemic and never reopened after a building inspection found it dangerous for worshipers. The damage is due to water intrusion and age-related deterioration. Temple members are now trying to raise money to finance its needed renovations.

A plaque from the Historic Wilmington Foundation in front of the front door indicates that the architect is Samuel Sloan of Philadelphia. (Port City Daily / Amy Passaretti)

History of the temple

The Temple of Israel was built in the 1800s by German Jewish immigrants who settled in Wilmington, most of them emigrating from Bavaria.

During this time, the founding leaders lived within walking distance of the site and owned shops along Front Street, according to “Getting to Know the Temple of Israel,” by Naomi Kleid, an article originally published in the Temple newsletter. December 2021 addressed to the congregation.

The immigrants came together to form a congregation. At a meeting at Abram Weill’s home on November 9, 1871, 40 men pledged to support the building of a temple.

“They responded to Germany and asked their families for money,” said Beverly Tetterton, chair of the Temple board.

The Morning Star (ancestor of StarNews) reported on the new temple, urging residents to help the Jewish community with their project. After the story was picked up by national publications in Raleigh, Cincinnati and Philadelphia, support funds poured in.

Three years later, the land was purchased, plans were made and a vision came to fruition. The temple was built in historic downtown Wilmington at 1 S. 4th St.

“Until the 20th century, services were held in German,” Unger explained.

Original German prayer books, hymns and sermons are on file at the University of North Carolina at Wilmington.

When it was built, the temple was heated with coal, candle-lit, and no toilet was available on site.

Over time, oil lighting was installed in 1883, followed by electricity in 1905.

“The place stinks of history,” Unger said.

The temple houses rare items, such as a 200-year-old crystal chandelier from Landau in Germany, which hangs in the center of the sanctuary and a rare Pilcher-Tracker organ dating from 1906. The instrument was restored in 1990 and is the one of three of its kind still in existence.

In recent years, HVAC units and an elevator have been installed to modernize the structure and increase accessibility for people with disabilities.

Other past renovations include repainting the temple’s interior and exterior domes and reinforcing the stained glass windows.

In 2006, the mahogany wood surrounding exterior windows was rotting and was replaced with metal and fiberglass to ensure longevity, Tetterton explained. Meanwhile, contractor Beth Pancoe – who has worked on historic downtown buildings for most of her career and retired from SDI Contracting earlier in the fall – has removed and cleaned the windows at melted with a water pick and glued the pieces back together. Much of the French glass has been salvaged, with the exception of a few cracked pieces that have been turned into souvenir jewelry.

Tetterton, a member of the congregation since 1985, said there was a brief movement in the late 1990s to build a new temple in the suburbs, but talks fizzled out.

In 2001, the rabbi asked Tetterton, a former librarian, to research the history of the temple. She studied old newspaper articles and interviewed longtime members (some of whom are no longer alive) to write “The Story of the Temple of Israel.” Tetterton has since updated the book to include the history of the temple from then to the present day.

The temple has been closed since 2020 and cannot reopen to the public until repairs are completed. (Port City Daily / Amy Passaret ti)

Restoration of the building

Last year, during a building inspection following the discovery of mold, a structural engineer deemed the entrance to the temple unsafe due to the concentration of mold.

A temporary angled roof structure was installed along the front left side of the temple, if it faces the street, to help divert water from the building.

Since the closure, the congregation has held services and events, with limited capacity, at the Reibman Center for Kehillah, the temple-owned annex built in 2015 at 922 Market St. The Reibman Center houses administrative buildings, meeting rooms. meeting, library and Sunday. Classrooms and accommodated groups of 100 or more for past events. Currently, only 25 reserved spaces are available for weekly in-person services (to maintain a 6-foot distance between members). The remaining congregation, comprising almost 195 family units in total, must tune in virtually. The congregation will continue to meet here until the temple repairs are completed.

“The cost is not fully known, but we set a figure of $ 500,000 because it seemed to be in the middle of the estimates we got for the building,” Unger said. “We can collect more, but it seemed like a round number that people can relate to.”

If additional funds are collected and not needed for these repairs, the money will go into a reserve for future servicing and maintenance.

According to Malinda Zimmerman, president of the building and grounds, several areas of the building require work, including: partial replacement of the foundations of the north tower; replacing the drain pipe on the north side to mitigate future damage and the window sills on the north side are rotten. The extent of the damage is unclear, and his likely crews will discover additional needs once work begins.

“Eventually over time, if you don’t pay attention, things happen,” Unger said.

The congregation and the Restoration 150 committee wish to preserve the architectural integrity of the building, as it is one of only 10 of its style in the United States. The others are located in New York and Cincinnati. It is also the 10th oldest synagogue in the country.

The neo-Moorish style is recognized by the two temple towers with a dome atop each and tall, well-rounded arched windows. A plaque from the Historic Wilmington Foundation in front of the front door indicates that the architect is Samuel Sloan of Philadelphia. Sloan also built the First Baptist Church across the street and the First Presbyterian Church on 3rd Street.

“To be honest, look at their windows and ours, you can see how he’s used some of the same things,” Tetterton said. “We are a port city and things had to be shipped. So very cleverly, [architects] used things for one building and another.

Restoration 150 publicly announced its fundraising campaign on Dec. 16 after privately raising $ 200,000 – about 40% of its goal – from congregation members, friends and family.

“We are confident, with this fundraiser, we will reach our goal by spring,” Unger said. “Our goal was to reach $ 200,000 by the end of the year, but we exceeded it in early December.”

Restoration 150 co-chair Peggy Pancoe Rosoff said on Tuesday the committee had met with a civil engineer who will create the blueprints for the building. Once approved, the construction will need to be tendered. While Rosoff hoped to be back in the temple by the Great Holy Days of 2022, which takes place in September, progress is unlikely to go so quickly.

Rosoff explained that the Jewish community is united and places projects involving the temple as a high priority.

“My whole family makes the temple one of the [its] important causes, ”said Rosoff.

She has been a member of the congregation since 2006 after visiting family in Wilmington, although she has been traveling from LA since the 1970s.

“When I walked through the front door, I immediately felt like I was home,” Rosoff added.

The community came together to raise money to build the temple over a century ago, and now the committee wants to see history repeat itself to save the structure.

The Board of Directors does not increase membership dues or take out a second mortgage or loan. He relies solely on donations, Unger said.

Donors who contribute $ 1,800 or more will be recognized on a plaque installed at the temple. Contributors can also “adopt” one of the original 27 synagogue benches for $ 10,000. A small nameplate of the donors will be placed on the respective benches.

Rosoff reiterated that this was not a fundraising campaign, although the committee is seeking grants.

Donations, specifically intended for temple restoration efforts, can be made:

  • By sending your contributions to the Temple of Israel, 922 Market St. Wilmington NC 28401
  • On the Temple website, temple-of-israel.org
  • Purchase of the book “The History of the Temple of Israel” written by Tetterton for a donation of $ 100 or more.

Tips or comments? E-mail amy@localdailymedia.com.

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