Architectural rendering of the planned renovation of Congregation Emanu-El's building in San Francisco.
Architectural rendering of the planned renovation of Congregation Emanu-El's building in San Francisco.

S.F. officials approve Congregation Emanu-El’s $91 million remodel and retrofit

The San Francisco Planning Commission voted 6-0 in a public hearing last week to  approve the planned renovation, extension and seismic retrofit of Congregation Emanu-El.

Announced in 2019 with a price tag of $72 million, the project is now anticipated to cost $91 million because of inflation and increased costs for labor and materials.

“Like a lot of things, the end result goes smoothly because of years of effort leading up to it,” David Goldman, Emanu-El’s executive director, told J. after the Jan. 12 vote, for which one commission member (a board member at Emanu-El) recused herself.

“It was a great day for the temple,” Goldman said. “We presented the project as something that was good for Emanu-El and the Jewish community, yes, but good for the whole city of San Francisco.”

The project will be a massive undertaking, with construction scheduled to begin in June of this year and end in 2025, the building’s centennial year.

Architectural rendering of the planned renovation of Congregation Emanu-El's building in San Francisco.
Architectural rendering of the planned renovation of Congregation Emanu-El’s building in San Francisco.

Other than the iconic domed sanctuary itself, every part of the building will undergo visibly significant changes. The portico around the courtyard will be extended upward, creating new classrooms and social spaces; the long-disused main entrance will be reopened and made more accessible and secure; new offices will be added below street level; a new area on the roof will be a play area for children (and will afford visitors a sweeping view of the city); and, most importantly, the entire facility will receive a seismic retrofit.

Goldman highlighted the importance of improving the preschool facilities. “The commissioners really understood the need,” he said. “The city knows that keeping parents in the city is important, so they understood the need for the expansion to the preschool.”

Since the project was first unveiled to the Emanu-El community at a town hall event in 2019, the design has undergone some changes, most of them small, many to keep costs down.

“We consider this one of the most beautiful buildings in San Francisco of any type, up there with City Hall and a handful of others,” architect Mark Cavagnero told J. in 2019. His firm, Mark Cavagnero Associates, known for large public buildings and civic spaces, is handling the project.

The Emanu-El building, with its hulking dome, airy courtyard and bright stained glass, was designed with a layout that symbolically mirrors the layout of the ancient Temple in Jerusalem by the architect Arthur Brown Jr., who also designed San Francisco’s iconic City Hall.

“As we joked [after the vote], now’s the hard part,” Goldman said. “You gotta build the thing. There are lots of refinements and decisions to be made to meet our deadline of shovels in the ground in June. But that is what we’re working toward now.”

David A.M. Wilensky
David A.M. Wilensky

David A.M. Wilensky is interim associate editor of J. He previously served as assistant editor and digital editor, and is a member of the board of the American Jewish Press Association. He can be reached at [email protected].