Tuesday, December 6, 2022

150 years ago, Jewish community built downtown temple. Can it be restored to its former glory?

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

WILMINGTON — Standing sentinel at the corner of Fourth and Market streets is North Carolina’s oldest Jewish house of worship. The Temple of Israel is a beacon of history, a snapshot of Moorish Revival-style architecture and home to the Wilmington Jewish Reform community.

Built in 1876 for $20,000 — roughly equal to $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 that launched in October to help restore the temple to its former glory.

Restoration 150 pays homage to the history of the building, 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 deemed it unsafe for worshipers. Damage exists from water intrusion and age-related deterioration. Temple members are now attempting to raise money to fund its necessary renovations.

A plaque from the Historic Wilmington Foundation outside the front door lists the architect as 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 emigrating from Bavaria.

During this time, the founding leaders lived within walking distance of the site and owned stores along Front Street, according to Naomi Kleid’s “Getting to Know the Temple of Israel,” an article originally printed in the December 2021 temple bulletin to the congregation.

The immigrants came together to form a congregation. During a meeting at the home of Abram Weill on Nov. 9, 1871, 40 men pledged support to build a temple.

“They wrote back to Germany and asked for money from their families,” said Beverly Tetterton, Temple Board of Trustees president.

The Morning Star (predecessor of StarNews) reported on the new temple, urging locals to aid the Jewish community in its project. After the story was picked up by nationwide publications in Raleigh, Cincinnati and Philadelphia, supporting funds came pouring in.

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

“Up until the 20th century, services were conducted in German,” Unger explained.

Original German prayer books, hymnals and sermons are archived at the University of North Carolina Wilmington.

When first built, the temple was heated by coal, lit with candles, and no restrooms were available anywhere on site.

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

“The place reeks of history,” Unger said.

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

In recent years, HVAC units and an elevator were installed to modernize the structure and increase handicapped accessibility.

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

In 2006, mahogany wood surrounding the exterior windows was rotting and replaced with metal and fiberglass to ensure longevity, Tetterton explained. During this time, contractor Beth Pancoe — who has worked on historical downtown buildings most of her career and retired from SDI Contracting earlier in the fall — removed and cleaned the windows thoroughly with a water pick and re-cemented the parts back together. The French glass was mostly salvaged, aside from a few cracked pieces which were converted into souvenir jewelry.

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

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

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

Restoring the building

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

A temporary angled-roof structure has been installed along the front left side of the temple, if facing from the street, to help deflect water from the building.

Since closing, the congregation has been holding 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 administration buildings, meeting halls, a library and Sunday School classrooms and has welcomed groups of 100 or more for past events. Presently, only 25 reserved spots are available for weekly in-person services (to maintain a 6-foot distance between members). The remaining congregation, comprising nearly 195 family units in total, has to tune in virtually. The congregation will continue to meet here until repairs on the temple are complete.

“The cost is not totally known, but we set a figure of $500,000 because it seemed to be in the middle of estimates we had gotten for the building,” Unger said. “We can raise more, but that seemed to be a round number people can identify with.”

If additional funds are raised and unneeded for these repairs, money will go into a reserve for future upkeep and maintenance.

According to building and grounds chair Malinda Zimmerman, several areas of the building require work including: partial replacement on the foundation of the north tower; replacement of the drainpipe on the north side to mitigate future damage and the north side window sills are rotted. The extent of the damage is unclear, and its likely crews will uncover additional needs once work begins.

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

The congregation and the Restoration 150 committee want to safeguard the architectural integrity of the building, as it’s one of only 10 in its style left in the U.S. The others are located in New York City and Cincinnati. It’s also the 10th oldest synagogue in the country.

The Moorish Revival style is recognized by the temple’s two towers with a dome atop each and tall, well-rounded arched windows. A plaque from the Historic Wilmington Foundation outside the front door lists the architect as 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 used some of the same things,” Tetterton said. “We’re a port city and things had to be shipped in. So very smartly, [architects] used things for one building and another.”

Restoration 150 publicly announced its donation campaign Dec. 16 after privately securing $200,000 – roughly 40% of its goal – from congregation members, friends and family.

“We’re confident, with this fundraising, we’re going to reach our goal by spring,” Unger said. “Our target was to get to $200,000 by the end of the year, but we passed that in the beginning of December.”

Restoration 150 co-chair Peggy Pancoe Rosoff said Tuesday, the committee met with a civil engineer who will create plans for the building. Once approved, the construction will need to be bid out. While Rosoff was hoping to be back in the temple by 2022’s High Holy Days, which take place in September, it’s unlikely the progress will move that quickly.

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

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

She has been a congregation member since 2006 after visiting family in Wilmington, though she had traveled from L.A. since the ’70s.

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

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

The board is not raising membership dues or taking out a second mortgage or a loan. It is relying solely on donations, Unger said.

Donors contributing $1,800 or more will be recognized on a plaque installed at the Temple. Contributors may also “adopt” one of the synagogue’s 27 original pews for $10,000. A small name plate of the donors will be placed on the respective pews.

Rosoff iterated this is not a capital campaign, although the committee is seeking grant funding.

Donations, designated specifically for Temple restoration efforts, can be made:

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

Tips or comments? Email amy@localdailymedia.com.

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