A grand staircase with 129 fabulously diverse banisters is the focal point of the newly rededicated Beth Am Synagogue, on Eutaw Place in Baltimore.
The 97-year-old Conservative synagogue was rededicated Nov. 17 after its multimillion dollar renovation, which began in January and was completed in September. Metalwork artists David and Eli Hess designed the staircase. Each unique banister was collected from various buildings around the neighborhood, from old warehouses to abandoned homes.
“Their idea is that the diversity of the congregation somehow all comes together to support the building and membership,” said David Rothenberg, executive director at Beth Am.
The building was home to Chizuk Amuno from 1922 until 1968, when Chizuk Amuno moved to Pikesville. In 1974, a new congregation bought the building and named it Beth Am for “House of the People.”
Starting in the 1950s, most Jewish families moved out of downtown. According to the Jewish Community Federation of Baltimore, only 30% of the area’s 93,400 Jews still lived in the city in 2010. However, Beth Am not only still sits in the city, but is active in its community, offering space for Jews United for Justice, Residents Against the Tunnels, Girl Scout troops, and more.
“The synagogue is committed to working with neighbors, Jewish or not, to make this community better,” said Rothenberg.
Because of the building’s age, it needed extensive renovations to bring it up to modern expectations for community spaces.
“The Beth Am Board of Trustees has been planning renovations and modernization of the building for many years,” said Jonathan Fishman, Beth Am president.
“The building was not compliant with modern code, was not accessible, and the sanctuary did not have air conditioning.” Furthermore, Fishman said, the “design of the bimah [orator’s podium] was not consistent with the contemporary approach to Jewish worship that Beth Am embraces.”
Now, the building has both air conditioning and a modern sound system. Additionally, because the bottom floor had almost no historical value, according to Rothenberg, it underwent the most complete, utilitarian reconstruction. The columns remained, but now there are track walls that can be rolled away. Also, the entrance is now street level, and there is a new security camera.
The second floor was a historical project to preserve the sanctuary’s nature. The most serious construction on that floor was the bimah. The second level used to be separated between the clergy and congregation in height and distance, with a marble wall that is now gone. The new design should create a more organic flow. There is now a ramp and area for children to sit on the floor, as well as space for wheelchairs, strollers, and walkers.
This upstairs service room can seat almost 1,000 people. There are around 560 member families, but typical Shabbat mornings see around 150 congregants. On the High Holidays, it is full. It also has a streaming camera, so that people can view the service on the synagogue’s website.
The cost of construction, not including architecture, furniture, and furnishings, was $5.5 million.
Almost $13 million was raised by donations from 85% of the congregation, according to Lisa Akchin, immediate past president and annual fund co-chair.
Akchin predicts that after everything is paid off, the congregation will have an endowment of $3 million left over from donations.
“I think the congregation has a lot of affection for the building and its location in Baltimore. We have not been a synagogue with a building fund, so we have not been asking for this money all along, so people understood that it was a once in a generation commitment,” said Akchin.
“We are enormously proud,” said Fishman. “Broad participation means that the Beth Am membership truly own this project.”
There is still a “punch list” of items to do, such as a couple of unfinished doors, repainting, and changing out heating units.
Originally, there was supposed to be an addition built on the back lot, but this plan was changed in the summer of 2018. It is still up for debate on whether the empty space will be an office space, parking lot, or greenery. Ideally, Beth Am wants to bring the offices in Charles Village back next to the synagogue, according to Rothenberg.
The most difficult part of the project, he said, was demolition, which took the first three months of 2019. Another struggle was how everyone had to move out for nine months, and find other places to work and worship while the construction went on.
In addition, it was difficult to decide how to install things like air conditioning units without disrupting the historical design.
Mostly, “it was just the various unknowns. No previous renovations had been performed, so we were kind of going into it blind, finding out about the solid concrete foundation walls [that were] 28 inches thick,” said Ken Halfen, project manager at Southway Builders, Inc.
“We came across some hazardous materials,” Halfen added, “we had to take the balconies apart, maintain the original structure,” he said.
However, “Finding out how buildings were constructed then versus now; I love revitalizing historical work,” Halfen said.