Temple Beth Israel
The center of Jewish life in 20th century San Diego
By Laurel Schwartz
Congregation Beth Israel, now located in University City, was founded in Old Town San Diego in 1861 as Adat Yeshurun. In 1887 it was incorporated under the name Congregation Beth Israel. Its first sanctuary, completed in 1889 at 2nd and Beech Streets in downtown San Diego, now resides in Heritage Park in Old Town.
Having outgrown the Beech Street Temple, in 1923 the congregation purchased three lots, on the northwest corner of 3rd Avenue and Laurel Street in Bankers Hill. They selected M. Trepte & Son as the contractor and William Wheeler as the architect to build one structure which would include a sanctuary and social hall.
Architect William H. Wheeler's drawing, 1925. San Diego Union
William H. Wheeler was an Australian who settled in San Francisco. He sang at the Tivoli Opera House and did prizefighting in the evenings, while attending structural engineering courses. After escaping the San Francisco earthquake, he moved his family south, where he designed and supervised building construction for the San Diego & Arizona Railway. Wheeler's many buildings in San Diego include houses of worship such as the Church of the Immaculate Conception in Old Town, civic buildings and several theaters, including his only remaining theatre, the Balboa.
The Byzantine or Moorish style of architecture, the newest trend in American synagogue architecture was the style chosen for the new Temple Beth Israel. American synagogues were being built in this style due to the recent discovery of an ancient Hebrew temple in Tiberias. The architectural style that was once deemed to be Byzantine was now thought to be of Hebrew origin. Throughout the interior and exterior there is evidence of this style, from the three arched doors at the entrance, the onion-shaped arches and the metal grille work, to the domed cupola, which rests above a series of four tiered octagonal drums.
In 1958 the congregation purchased the rest of the block and three years later well-known modern architect William Krisel completed a school building there.
In the late 1990's when Congregation Beth Israel planned to leave 3rd and Laurel, we decided we could not let the building be demolished. We worked with community members and SOHO to protect the building by qualifying it for the National Register of Historic Places. We raised money and with SOHO as sponsor, hired historian Alex Bevil to write the nomination. As historians of the congregation we were able to provide many of the supporting materials and background information that was needed.
Interior, circa 1950
Our goal was to qualify the building in all three designation categories: the reputation of the architect, the importance of the building's architecture, and the cultural significance of the events that took place there. For the period of significance, we chose 1926 to 1950. During this period, besides serving as a place of worship, Temple Beth Israel was the center of Jewish life in San Diego. Many community benevolent associations were founded in the Temple Center (social hall) and civic leaders were members of the congregation. The community at large often had occasion to attend events there as well.
We conducted research at County Administration, the San Diego Historical Society, the main branch of the San Diego Library, the Jewish Historical Society of San Diego, and our personal Judaica library. Alex Bevil's expertise in California history, architectural history and historic designations was invaluable. With help from community members Joy Heitzman and Lucy Goldman we collected several hundred signed letters, which were sent to the State Office of Historic Preservation to support the nomination. Articles about the potential demolition of the historic synagogue began appearing in the Jewish Press and the San Diego Union-Tribune.
On May 26, 2000, along with Lucy Goldman, Alex Bevil and SOHO board member, Maureen Steiner, we testified at the State Historic Preservation commission in Sacramento. We were successful in convincing the commission of the synagogue's historic value.
Having raised over $4 million to renovate the synagogue, Ohr Shalom followed the Secretary of the Interior's Standards and retained as much original fabric as possible while meeting the needs of a growing congregation. Photos by Bonnie Harris.
During this process we received guidance from the State Office of Historic Preservation, the National Trust for Historic Preservation, Partnership for Sacred Places, and the Los Angeles Conservancy. San Diego preservation architect, Jim Kelley-Markham, and of course SOHO, provided much help during the often trying process.
Because of the national and state recognition of the building's significance and the publicity generated by the controversy, Congregation Beth Israel decided to sell the building to a local developer who promised to restore the building and allow another congregation to use it. We are happy to report that restoration was unveiled earlier this year and an important piece of San Diego's Jewish heritage remains to continue to tell its story.
About the author Laurel Schwartz has been a leader of the Jewish Historical Society of San Diego since 1990 and in 1999 established, along with husband Stan, the Jewish Historical Society of San Diego Archives at San Diego State University. They were instrumental in preserving the 1926 Temple Beth Israel as a historic site and have spoken extensively on early San Diego Jewish history.
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