This photographic essay illuminates a few of the ninety-seven buildings that were originally erected as synagogues in the United States during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries and still stand today. Calling attention to these structures illustrates how American Jews have maintained and preserved their houses of worship, while also showing how synagogues have been used for alternative purposes in changing urban landscapes.
Often following trends in secular and ecclesiastical architecture, the look of US synagogues evolved over the decades. The Touro Synagogue, the only eighteenth-century Jewish house of worship still standing today, was designed in the Georgian style by noted Colonial architect Peter Harrison (figure I). Beth Israel in Honesdale, PA is an example of the Greek Revival style, fashionable for houses of worship in the 1840s and early 1850s (figure 2). Romanesque Revival synagogues with round-arched windows became popular for several decades beginning in the 1850s as illustrated in Goldsboro, NC (figure 3) and Salt Lake City (figure 4), with Gothic Revival and Victorian styles in Leadville, CO (figure 5) and Charlottesville, VA (figure 6) becoming more common beginning in the 1870s and 1880s.
Moorish Revival was used heavily for synagogues--but not much in secular architecture--from the 1860s to 1890s. Moorish synagogues often contained onion-shaped domes or minarets, horseshoe arches, and polychromatic decoration. One theory for their ubiquity is the nineteenth-century revival of Jewish popular and scholarly interest in the history of the Sephardic diaspora, including their Golden Age in Spain and Northern Africa. (1) Additionally, congregations built Moorish buildings in part to differentiate them from Victorian-style churches. (2) Examples of Moorish synagogues are those in Denver (figure 7) and Newark (figure 8).
At the turn of the century, synagogue architecture returned to the American architectural mainstream with a heavy emphasis on Classical Revival styles. The change is attributable to the interest in classical design at the 1893 Columbian Exposition in Chicago and also to archeological discoveries of Galilean synagogues built during Roman times. (3) This style was adopted by New York City's Shearith Israel (figure 9).
The small number of remaining nineteenth-century structures underscores the transitions that have taken place in Jewish life over the past 150 years. As Jews migrated out of small towns to large...