Blessing Our Lucky Stars

Annual laurels for America's special places and the tireless people who care for them

By Salvatore Deluca

The St. Thomas Synagogue, in the town of Charlotte Amalie, after its restoration

In 1796, on what is now St. Thomas in the U.S. Virgin Islands, a group of Jews who had fled the British bombardment of a nearby island during the American Revolution built a synagogue. It burned in 1804, was rebuilt and enlarged, then burned down again. Its replacement, built in 1833 and restored in 2002, received one of the Trust's 22 National Preservation Awards on Sept. 30 at the National Preservation Conference in Louisville, Ky.

Despite hurricanes and earthquakes, the Danish colonial St. Thomas Synagogue has missed only one Sabbath service in the past 171 years—in 1995, after Hurricane Marilyn hit the island. But a leaky roof and crumbling lime plaster on the walls had already allowed moisture and salt to penetrate the mortar structure. Vegetation had also begun to grow in some of the cracks. Well-meaning caretakers systematically removed the plaster, both inside and out, as it broke up.

"In preservation in the 1970s, there was a wave of exposing brick and stone walls," says William Taylor, a St. Croix architect who headed the restoration. "Whether it was fashion or an attempt at restoration is up for debate, but the walls weren't designed to be exposed. To correct the problem, they put on clear sealants, which only made it worse and worse."

The plaster removal also changed the way natural light washed over the interior, an effect Taylor sought to restore, researching original moldings and details for the replastering. He decided to replace the faux-painted plaster columns of the Ark, where the Torah is stored, with polished native mahogany and use marble panels between them. The old Ten Commandments tablets were damaged beyond repair, so Taylor hired an English stoneworker to carve new ones. A candle-powered Baccarat crystal-and-brass chandelier was converted for electricity, and its missing pieces were recast. The 15-month restoration cost $500,000, raised by the 100-member congregation.

"I remember the plaster in the '50s and '60s," says Katina Coulianos, the synagogue's president. "The color scheme now is much more subtle. If you go there in the early evening, the colors are just wonderful, all those different tones. It's very spiritual."