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The Little D.C. Shul That Could

Built in 1876, Adas Israel—the actual building itself—will be moved for a third time

Raquel Wildes
March 31, 2016

For this 273-ton synagogue, the third time will be the charm.

Built in 1876 in red brick typical of Romanesque Revival architecture, Adas Israel was the first synagogue constructed in downtown D.C., and the first to host a U.S. President, Ulysses S. Grant, at its inaugural dedication.

Its congregation quickly outnumbered the 100-person capacity, and relocated in 1908, leaving the inner sanctum abandoned and likely to be forgotten—like many old religious institutions whose worshipers outgrow its walls. The ground floor was converted into three storefronts, at one point, according to an article in The Forward, housing a barbecue restaurant and a bicycle shop, while the upper level was rented out by a variety of church groups.

But the physical structure of Adas Israel has been deemed so important by preservationists and historians that they have literally picked it up and moved it to ensure its survival.

In 1969, after the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority threatened to flatten it to make way for their new headquarters, the 25-by-60-foot building was lifted on a hydraulic press and pulled by two Caterpillar track construction cars along the streets of Washington, D.C. from its original home at 6th and G Streets, to its new home in the Judiciary Square neighborhood near the National Building Museum. (The structure now houses the Lillian & Albert Small Jewish Museum.)

This was one of the first—but not last—times a synagogue was moved and repurposed. In 1970, San Leandro, California’s oldest extant synagogue was brought to its congregation’s new home nearby. Synagogues were also moved in Madison, Wisconsin and San Diego, in 1978) and redesigned as non-religious event venues. But after the 1980s, this practice ceded until 2014 when the B’nai Abraham synagogue of Brenham, Texas was moved, piece-by-piece to its new home. Adas Israel, however, will remain intact throughout its journey.

“Moving a synagogue is like a heart transplant—you don’t do it lightly,” Samuel Gruber, a historian of American synagogues, told the Washingtonian.

Sometime in 2016, reported The Washingontonian, Adas Israel will move to a temporary home as it awaits another (final?) resting place. In 2019 it will be hoisted one block over and tucked next to the seven acre Capitol Crossing complex where it will be home to a new Jewish museum and expanded headquarters of the Jewish Historical Society of Greater Washington.

Raquel Wildes, a graduate student at Columbia Journalism School, is an Audio Consultant at Tablet.