Objects of the Month

February 2011: Washington Hebrew Congregation's Henry King, Jr. Eternal Light, 1898

Washington Hebrew Congregation's Henry King, Jr. Eternal Light, 1898
  • Accession No.: 1975.01
  • Donor: Robert Reich
  • Description:

    Brass eternal light, 1898

Caroline King donated the ner tamid (eternal light) to Washington Hebrew Congregation in memory of her late husband, Henry King, Jr. The inscription reads "In memory of H. King Jr. by his wife and children." A ner tamid is an eternal light that hangs over a synagogue's ark where the Torah is kept, and symbolizes God's constant presence.

King's Palace, early 1900s. The façade of the building survives, now integrated into an office building at 810 Seventh Street, NW, which houses a local bar on the first floor.

Courtesy of Library of Congress, LC-DIG-npcc-32044

Henry King, Jr., came to the United States in 1848 as a teenager. He and Caroline Straus married and opened a millinery business on Pennsylvania Avenue, NW, in 1861. The business expanded and relocated a number of times before finding its permanent home at 814 Seventh Street, NW, in 1877. In the meantime, the couple had welcomed seven children into their lives, three of whom would eventually take over the business. Over time, the millinery grew into a department store known as King's Palace that occupied four adjacent addresses. King died in 1897 and the business continued under the management of three of his sons and later a grandson.

In 1898, when Washington Hebrew dedicated a new synagogue on Eighth Street, NW, this ner tamid was donated in memory of Henry King, who had been largely responsible for campaigning and fundraising for the new synagogue in his role as congregational president.

About 75 years later, when Robert Reich, a local collector of architectural remnants, unearthed the light, he knew that Henry Brylawski, Chair of the Restoration Committee for the 1876 historic synagogue, was looking for a ner tamid to hang in synagogue. A newer ner tamid had already been installed, however, so the blackened, brass light fixture was donated to the Society's archival collection. To prepare it for display in 2005 in our exhibition, Jewish Washington: Scrapbook of an American Community, at the National Building Museum, the ner tamid was repaired, polished, and restored.

Do you have artifacts from a local synagogue that you'd like to donate to the Jewish Historical Society? Contact us at info@jhsgw.org or (202) 789-0900.