Illustrated History of 1876 Synagogue
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The historic 1876 Adas Israel synagogue is the oldest synagogue structure in Washington, but Adas Israel is not the oldest congregation. Formed in 1852, Washington Hebrew Congregation was the city’s first Jewish congregation. The congregants followed a trend among Jewish immigrants at the time—reforming their religious practices as they assimilated into American life. They allowed men and women to sit together, began to pray in English, and, eventually, purchased an organ for use during Sabbath services. In 1869, 38 members of the 17-year-old Washington Hebrew Congregation resigned in order to return to more traditional, orthodox Jewish rituals. Worshipping first in rented accommodations, the new Adas Israel Congregation soon began to raise funds for a building of its own.
By 1873, they had raised enough money to purchase a lot on the southeastern corner of Sixth and G Streets, NW, for $2,300, and, within three years, signed a contract with Joseph Williams to build a synagogue on the site. The simple, unpretentious structure was finished in just three months at a cost of $4,800. President Ulysses S. Grant attended the dedication on June 9, 1876.
The style of the brick edifice, just 25 feet wide and 60 feet long, has been called “stripped-down Romanesque Revival.” Notable features included a protruding bay on the east (now north) end to house the holy ark, a small cupola, and tall, narrow windows, each crowned by a simple wooden fan design. A recessed marble lunette at the front identifies the synagogue and the year it was erected.
The sanctuary occupied the second and third floors and accommodated 350 worshippers. The holy ark was at the east end, and a women’s gallery ran along the other three sides. The bimah (reader’s platform) stood in front of the ark, and the hall was fitted out with pine pews. The first floor originally contained a schoolroom, meeting space and caretaker’s quarters, and housed a mikvah (ritual bath).
When the growing congregation relocated to a larger sanctuary at Sixth and I Streets, NW, in 1908, Stephen Gatti and his family acquired the building and reconfigured it for commercial use. Over the years, the building's original purpose faded from memory, but by the late 1950s, a few members of the community started bringing the former synagogue's history to the attention of the Society. Support was gathered for the building's preservation, but a crisis soon struck.
In 1966, when Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority (Metro) plans called for razing the building, the new Jewish Historical Society of Greater Washington sprang into action. With help from the District of Columbia, the Department of Housing and Urban Development, and an Act of Congress, the Jewish Historical Society made plans to relocate the building to the northeast corner of Third and G Streets, NW. The first floor was too weak to be moved, so only the second and third floors (sanctuary and balcony levels) made the journey by flatbed truck in December 1969. More photos of the move!
Placed on a new first floor, the old synagogue was restored and framed by a new fence. Endowed largely through the generosity of the Small family, it became the Lillian & Albert Small Jewish Museum. Over the years, the Society has completed exterior and interior restoration work to the historic building. Mostly recently, a historic paint analysis in the sanctuary added greater depth to our knowledge of the interior's appearance at during different times, and uncovered new information such as decorative gold-leafing in some areas.
The Society is planning the second move of the historic synagogue -- this time, to the southeast corner of Third and F Street, NW. The new location will allow the synagogue to regain its original orientation facing east toward Jerusalem and will provide the Society with land on which to build an adjacent museum. Planning for this new facility has begun. Read our New Museum FAQs for more details.
For a different sort of tour, watch our video narrated by Professor Jenna Weissman Joselit.