Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Future of Phoenix’s first Orthodox synagogue uncertain

[Source: Deborah Sussman Susser, Jewish News of Greater Phoenix] -- The first Orthodox synagogue in the city still stands at 333 E. Portland St. in downtown Phoenix, but it could very well be gone in a matter of days. While the building’s records are safely stored at the Arizona Jewish Historical Society, the structure itself, designed by architect Max Kaufman and built by Arizona’s Mardian Construction in 1954, is not protected by any kind of historic designation, and the land on which it stands may be in the process of being sold.

Reached September 17, David Hemphill, director of the Black Theater Troupe, which owns the building, said that a “transaction” was taking place, but that he was not at liberty to disclose the details. The BTT received $2.3 million in the city bond election last year, in part to restore the building.

“It is troubling that the bond election was held under one pretext and here we are a year and a half later and it’s all changed,” said Kevin Weight, of the city’s Historic Preservation Office. “Last the public heard, at a city council meeting a few months ago, they were told they were proceeding with plans as part of the bond election. And now it’s changed and nobody knows about it except for the whispers… There ought to at least be more dialogue.”

Click here for October 26, 2007 update in Jewish News of Greater Phoenix.

Building Chronology

1945: French-Jewish survivor named Elias Loewy, “The Jewish Schindler,” is known for his heroic, clandestine rescue of more than 1,500 French Jews from deportation during WWII. Elias’ sons, Max and Fred, were members of the French Resistance. Max was killed just feet from his brother during a battle between 120 partisans and 3,000 German-led troops.

1948: Elias and family arrived in Phoenix, where Elias co-found Beth Hebrew Congregation and established the city’s Jewish Free Loan Society.

1950: Max Jacobsen, one of the founding congregants with the Loewy Family starts fund for new synagogue with a $2,000 donation.

July 1955: From the Arizona Republic, “Structure 55 X 100 feet, follows a contemporary design on its exterior, employing masonry block walls with high windows of translucent corrugated glass just under the roof. The roof, ceiled with acoustic tile, has an insulation layer of fiber glass under the waterproof top surface. There will be a special skylight penthouse over the altar section. The synagogue is divided into a lobby, kitchen sanctuary in the street end of the building, with two utility rooms each side of the platform, and altar at the rear of the sanctuary. At night specially designed recessed lighting ports will provide necessary illumination.”

Architect Max Kaufman, an amateur astronomer, designed the synagogue so that the roof is partially raised, as if a giant hand were lifting the edge of it up and away from the ark-shaped building. According to former congregation members, the quality of light that streamed in through the corrugated glass clerestory windows was extraordinary. The builder, Mardian Construction, was a well-known and important contractor in mid 20th century Phoenix.

1960: Steven Spielberg is Bar Mitzvah’d at Beth Hebrew Congregation. At 13 years old Steven also won a film contest for his 40-minute war movie, “Escape to Nowhere.”

1975: Beth Hebrew Congregation is absorbed into Beth El Congregation on Glendale Ave. 333 E. Portland building is rented out as a church.

1983: The Black Theatre Troupe of Phoenix moves to 333 E. Portland.

1991: With encouragement and support of Mayor Terry Goddard and City Council, 333 E. Portland is rededicated as the BTT’s Helen K. Mason Theater.

2005: BTT applies for $2.3 million in city bond money and $170,000 from the Virginia G. Piper Charitable Trust, most of which, according to the troupe’s proposal, would go toward fixing up the building.

2006: According to the BTT’s website, “In March 2006 the voters of Phoenix overwhelmingly approved a sweeping Bond Initiative that designated funds to The Black Theatre Troupe to renovate the Helen K. Mason Center for the Performing Arts. Several community needs will be met by this project including: (1) the reestablishment and expansion of BTT’s programs for youth at risk that emphasize the development of social and artistic skills, cooperation, discipline, self-esteem, and sharing; (2) the provision of performance space for young performers that will also accommodate children’s productions; and (3) the provision of affordable rental space for emerging performing arts groups with Stray Cat Theatre as a resident company. As the leading African American theater company in the four-corner states. This project will allow the Black Theatre Troupe to be the “crowning jewel” of this area of downtown and a shining example of diversity in the fifth largest city in the U.S. When completed, this $2.5M project will be unique in the City of Phoenix in that it will again provide a safe and nurturing artistic environment…”

August 2006: Fred Loewy (Elias’s son) dies.

2007: Without contacting the City of Phoenix Bond Committee representatives or Phoenix Arts and Culture Commission, BTT’s Board of Directors decides that the space is insufficient in size. The BTT Board and staff elect to sell building to neighboring land assembler.

August 2007: Fred Loewy’s sons donate all his papers, including a box full of material relating to Beth Hebrew Congregation, to the Arizona Jewish Historical Society. Fred kept everything to do with the synagogue, from early congregation documents written in Yiddish to the name of the building’s architect, to photographs of the groundbreaking. Jewish News of Greater Phoenix editor Leisah Woldoff writes a story about the synagogue’s history as revealed by Fred’s papers.
September 2007: After story appears in the Jewish News of Greater Phoenix about the BTT’s change of plans, text about the adaptive re-use of the building is removed from BTT website.

October 2007: Deborah Sussman Susser, editor of Jewish News of Greater Phoenix, contacts Michael Levine, a local developer with extensive experience in adaptive re-use of historic/vintage structures, including the Southwest Cotton Company Building in Phoenix (recipient of the 2007 Governor’s Heritage Preservation Grand Award) and a synagogue in Kisvarda, Hungary. Levine assesses the building and says it’s structurally sound with many of the original details in excellent condition; “it’s unique and has great bones.” According to officials with the State Historic Preservation Office and City of Phoenix Historic Preservation Office, “with the new archival information that’s recently come to light, the building is very likely eligible” for designation on local, state, and national historic registries.

What you can do? You are welcome to express your opinion about this matter to: