Like stratified layers of soil tell the story of the natural world, paint layers can tell a rich story of a building and the communities that lived there. Recently, the Society undertook a study of the paint in the sanctuary of its historic 1876 synagogue. The findings of this Historic Paint Analysis help us to piece together an idea of the building’s original appearance 138 years ago, and provide a map for future restoration activities. The project was funded in part by the National Trust for Historic Preservation and the MARPAT Foundation.
While this research rendered a nearly complete picture of the sanctuary's original paint and wood finishes, further study is needed to solve a remaining mystery: was there always a biblical passage painted on the Torah ark? If so, was it originally gold leaf?
The Historic Synagogue
In 1876, Adas Israel Hebrew Congregation built this synagogue at 6th and G Streets, NW. The building was the first purpose-built synagogue in Washington, DC. By all accounts, the sanctuary’s original appearance was quite modest. Its walls were whitewashed, with wood wainscoting below stained to look like walnut.
The most significant “extravagance” was on the Torah ark, which had some gold-leaf on the edges of its columns and cornice. Today it includes the familiar “Ma Tovu” passage from Numbers 24:5 in gold: “How lovely are your tents, O Jacob, your dwelling places, O Israel!” A June 1876 newspaper article about the synagogue’s dedication noted the presence of biblical quotation expressing reverence for synagogues. However, the article did not indicate whether or not the passage was painted direction above the ark, and if it appeared in gold or another color.
In 1908, the congregation sold the building to a real estate investor who converted the first floor to store fronts, and leased the second floor to a succession of churches. In 1969, when the building was marked for demolition, the Jewish Historical Society saved the building by moving it three blocks to 3rd and G Streets, NW. In 1975, JHSGW rededicated the building as the Lillian & Albert Small Jewish Museum. Learn more about the building’s history.
Since that time, the Jewish Historical Society has sought to restore the building to its original appearance. The Historic Paint Analysis is just one of the many tools that create a picture of the building’s original appearance in 1876. Other sources of information include newspaper accounts from the building’s dedication, and photographs from the 20th century.
Historic Paint Analysis
JHSGW worked with Worcester Eisenbrandt, Inc. (WEI) to carry out the historic paint analysis. WEI’s analyst excavated tiny craters and took dozens of samples of paint and varnish from throughout the main sanctuary and its balcony area. Locations included walls, window frames, the newel post on the stairway to the balcony, and, of course, on the Torah ark.
The craters revealed layer upon layer of paint and varnish, each representing a “moment” in the building’s history. This crater from the wainscot rail ringing the entire room shows the first layer of finish – a varnish – and successive layers of paint, including “graining” layers that emulated the appearance and rare, expensive woods. More recent layers included white, brown, and green paint, as well as a thick layer of dirt.
Future research might help to reveal precisely when each layer – including the dirt – was added and the length of time it was visible. This information, coupled with the timeline of the building’s inhabitants, would make it possible to imagine what the interior of the building looked like at different times.
Perhaps the most significant discovery was the existence of a layer of gold paint added within a few years of the synagogue’s construction on the columns that support the second floor. For the mostly immigrant congregation of modest means, this decoration was likely a costly addition.
In addition to the craters, WEI’s analyst placed cross sections from the wall finishes under the microscope. These provided a “side view” that revealed all the different layers of paint, varnish, and wallpaper in some cases. In this image, a thick layer of dirt from the period when the sanctuary was used a warehouse for shops on the first floor is visible.
There are still unanswered questions about some of the paint. The Hebrew inscription over the ark (called an entablature) is a reproduction of text that was present when the synagogue was dedicated. Yet, we do not yet know if the biblical passage was inscribed on the ark or on another piece of material and attached to the ark when the sanctuary was built, and if it was gold leaf. The Historic Paint Analysis found some gold leaf or paint below the several layers of paint. However, it is inconclusive whether or not the “older” layers are in fact just the bleeding through of the newer paint.
In December 2014, JHSGW raised support for another round of analysis on the entablature to answer this question. Thanks to an anonymous gift in memory of Margot Heckman and contributions from other community members, we will be able to solve this mystery.