A historic synagogue is reborn in Washington.
By Eugene L. Meyer | From Preservation | March/April 2006
Washington, D.C., has never been a major magnet for immigrants, but the nation's capital has historically had its share of ethnic enclaves concentrated in the inner city. Jewish merchants in particular called this area home around 1900, often living above their shops, and three synagogues thrived within three blocks. But as these immigrants became successful, they moved uptown and then to the suburbs. The old neighborhoods were abandoned, and Jewish religious, social, and economic institutions flourished there no longer.
In April 2004, one of the cornerstones of early Jewish life in Washington opened once again. A Moorish-style synagogue, built in 1908 and once home to the Adas Israel Congregation, underwent restoration and was rededicated as the Sixth and I Historic Synagogue, the name referring to the intersection where it's located.
And to think the venerable structure might have become a nightclub.
Since its reopening, about 30,000 people have entered the building, with its cathedral ceiling, stained-glass windows, and seating for nearly 1,000. There have been two dozen weddings there, two dozen bar and bat mitzvahs, weekday classes, and Sabbath services. In 2004, more than 600 people attended the first High Holy Day services held there in more than 50 years. Last year, the number exceeded 800.
The synagogue had been an African American church since 1951, when Adas moved uptown. In 2002, when the Turner Memorial A.M.E. Church wanted to move to the suburbs, the building was placed on the market. The real estate listing described the old building as "suitable for a nightclub."
At this time, the Chinatown area of Washington was experiencing a renaissance. The MCI Center, home to the Washington Wizards and Capitals, had breathed new life into the neighborhood, and empty nesters and young professionals were returning, with new condos and apartments springing up everywhere. Jewish cultural life was ready to flourish downtown once more.
Laura Apelbaum, executive director of the Jewish Historical Society of Greater Washington, alerted developer Shelton Zuckerman, who, along with Washington Wizards owner Abe Pollin and developer Douglas Jemal, bought the building in December 2002, each contributing $1 million. Architect Shalom Baranes oversaw the restoration. "I think Sixth and I is going to be the center for Jewish life in Washington in many ways," Zuckerman says. "We were just fortunate to be in the right place at the right time."
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