Victoria’s Congregation Emanu-El, Canada’s oldest synagogue and a National Historic Site, was built to speak to people who are fluent in the language of buildings, says a historian.
Architectural conservationist Hal Kalman said the synagogue at 1461 Blanshard St., with its distinctive pillars and rounded arches, was constructed in the Romanesque revival style. It’s a design statement Kalman called “a neat little conceit.”
It set the synagogue apart from Christian churches built mostly in the Gothic style with pointed arches. And it evokes a period — the Ancient Roman era, which predates the Gothic era of the 12th to 15th centuries — to match a religion that predates Christianity.
These little style points and statements would not have been lost on the Victorians of 150 years ago, when the synagogue was established, said Kalman.
“People at the time were very good at reading these little meanings of buildings,” he said in a telephone interview from Vancouver. “It’s something, unfortunately, that we have largely lost.”
Kalman will lead a tour and discussion of Congregation Emanu-El on Sunday for architecture and history buffs. It’s part of this year’s celebration of the synagogue’s 150th anniversary, which makes Congregation Emanu-El the country’s oldest synagogue in continuous use.
Kalman said the building is also a great example of the transformation underway at the time in Victoria, then enjoying a spinoff boom from the Fraser River gold rush.
“Victoria at the time was just going from wood to brick,” Kalman said. “This was part of the transformation of Victoria as it went from being a Hudson’s Bay fort to a major supply port on the West Coast.”
Kalman said the Jewish community at the time was mostly composed of new arrivals from San Francisco. As newcomers, they wanted to make a statement, to let people know they were not just passing through.
Since its original design, the building has undergone a variety of additions and renovations. Some were well suited to the original, such as the adjacent Education and Cultural centre built in brick and opened in 2003. Others, such as a post-Second World War coating of stucco — now removed — did little justice to the historic building.
In addition to being a National Historic Site, the synagogue has received a Hallmark Society Award for restoration work and an award from the American Association for State and Local History.
But time is also taking a toll. Cracks are appearing inside the worship space and it’s feared safety concerns might even force its closure unless repairs are made. Fundraising is now underway to come up with the estimated $400,000 cost.
As part of Sunday’s events, Rabbi Harry Brechner will lead a tour of the synagogue’s interior, noting its sacred spaces and ritual elements, including the new wedding canopy, called a “chuppah.”
The chuppah was designed and created by 13 of the synagogue’s own fabric artists. It will replace the original, used since 1864 and made of Chinese silk but now too fragile to remain in use.
The synagogue tour begins at 2 p.m. Admission is by donation ($10 suggested).
Money raised will go to rebuild and restore the building.
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