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Future of Manchester’s Historic Reform Synagogue in Question

A plan to build skyscrapers necessitates the demoliltion of the city center’s only shul, which the congregation supports. But England’s heritage lobby feels the new real estate would ‘harm’ Manchester’s character.

Liam Hoare
February 21, 2017
Manchester Reform Synagogue in Jackson's Row in Central Manchester, England. Facebook
Manchester Reform Synagogue in Jackson's Row in Central Manchester, England. Facebook

A proposed real estate development in the historic center of Manchester is pitting two ex-Manchester United soccer stars and a Reform synagogue against England’s heritage lobby.

Former pros Ryan Giggs and Gary Neville are the public face a plan for two new skyscrapers in the St. Michael’s area of Manchester, the heart of what has traditionally been a low-rise city, near the site of the historic town hall and central library. Developers have called it a “landmark” development for Manchester.

Construction would necessitate the demolition of three older buildings, including Manchester Reform Synagogue, the city’s center’s only shul, founded in 1857. The current structure, an imposing red brick building with stained glass windows noteworthy for their depictions of full human figures and faces, was opened in 1953. Their previous synagogue was bombed and largely destroyed during the Blitz in 1941.

Though the St. Michael’s project would involve the loss of their synagogue, its president, Danny Savage, said the demolition has “unanimous support” from membership. The present structure, he said, is “dilapidated and poorly built,” suffering from damp, failing electrical and heating systems, and is without parking, disabled access, and youth facilities.

With this in mind, Manchester Reform struck a deal with the developers. In return for their prime real estate, a new, purpose-built synagogue and cultural center will be built into the lower levels of one of the proposed skyscrapers. Along with a new, accessible sanctuary, they will gain parking spaces and multi-purpose meeting rooms. Some of the current structure’s original fixtures, such as the stained glass and Torah ark, will be retained. The developers argue this arrangement will “enable the congregation to continue to enjoy its city center location and play an important role in the civic life of the city.” Savage believes their plans offer Manchester Reform a chance to “reinvigorate the membership” and “keep the congregation safe for future generations.”

Standing in their way, however, are a coalition of heritage organizations who believe St. Michael’s constitutes an architectural eyesore and aberration that would dominate its vicinity. The conservation group SAVE Britain’s Heritage argues: “If the proposal gets the go-ahead it will be a town planning disaster of a magnitude not seen in decades.” The Twentieth Century Society, which campaigns to safeguard architecture and design in Britain from 1914 on, said the design of the towers shows “no consideration to Manchester’s special sense of place.”

These groups also oppose the demolition of Manchester Reform Synagogue itself and submitted an urgent application to save the building—which the government rejected. Historic England, a public body that champions and protects England’s historic places, agreed, telling me in a statement that the building “is not distinctive architecturally and has been subject to fairly extensive alterations over the years.”

Still, Historic England believes the demolition of Manchester Reform Synagogue “would harm the character and appearance” of the center of town, “so it would have to be very clearly justified.”

“The Twentieth Century Society and [Historic England] seem to be hell bent against the development and have never contacted the synagogue ever to see how it affects us,” Savage told me. “We as Jews welcome change, as most of Manchester does, in the hope that regeneration of the city center will create and secure jobs and prosperity.”

Manchester’s city council is expected to consider the planning application for St. Michael’s in the next few months.

Liam Hoare is a freelance writer based in Vienna, where he is the Europe Editor for Moment and a frequent contributor to Tablet.

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