From our March 26, 1926 issue, heralding the then-new Emanu-El building
From our March 26, 1926 issue, heralding the then-new Emanu-El building

‘Dedicated to the cause of Judaism’: Years after devastating 1906 quake, Emanu-El rose again

Sign up for Weekday J and get the latest on what's happening in the Jewish Bay Area.

This week, Congregation Emanu-El broke ground on an ambitious $91 million remodel of its domed San Francisco edifice that will spruce up the historic building both inside and out. It’s a huge undertaking, but it’s not the first time that the venerable synagogue has taken on a massive project.

Emanu-El was founded around the time of the Gold Rush for a small Jewish community — one that soon split into Emanu-El and Congregation Sherith Israel — and thrived.

Originally in rented quarters, Emanu-El consecrated a building in 1854 on Broadway between Powell and Mason streets. Emanu-El quickly outgrew it and, in 1864, laid the cornerstone for a building on Sutter Street. It was an imposing structure, with two spires that dominated the skyline.

This Emanu-El synagogue building on Sutter Street was destroyed in the earthquake and fire of 1906. (Photo/J. Archives)
This Emanu-El synagogue building on Sutter Street was destroyed in the earthquake and fire of 1906. (Photo/J. Archives)

“When the old temple was erected on Sutter street, above Stockton, it was the most prominent building in the neighborhood and perhaps in the city,” we wrote in 1925. “Its towers loomed high above the surrounding structures. The building was regarded as a landmark of the region.”

But in April 1906, disaster struck.

The quake of ’06 and subsequent fire devastated the city, including the synagogue. It was quickly decided that a whole new building and site were needed, but in the meantime more immediate fixes were pressing.

In January 1907, we announced: “At a special meeting of the members of Congregation Emanu-El, held at Bush Street Temple last Sunday afternoon, it was decided to utilize the walls of the old building as far as practical and to make improvements and repairs, the expenditure not to exceed $75,000.”

Because this newspaper was founded by an Emanu-El rabbi, our pages naturally paid close attention to the situation. By March 1907, it was clear that a lot of work needed to be done to make the old building workable. It was also clear that the trauma of the quake and fire had left its mark.

RELATED: Emanu-El breaks ground on $91 million remodel of iconic building

“It was possible to erect a temporary structure at a cost of $35,000, but the congregation, at the suggestion of the Building Committee, preferred to spend $75,000, inclusive of the standing walls, that will be as safe for a congregation to gather and worship in as any structure of its kind in this whole country,” wrote Philip Lippitt in these pages. “To all intents and purposes it will be more than safe and capable of meeting any and every emergency.”

There would be changes, though — most dramatically in the truncation of the spires that once grandly proclaimed the site of the synagogue.

“Owing to the general desire of the Congregation Emanu-El that the auditorium be placed above the level of the sidewalk, thus avoiding the old high and somewhat dangerous steps, the architects have been forced to take down, not only the sidewalks to a certain depth, but also that portion of the towers which the general public deemed more or less unsafe.”

There were a few improvements though, Lippitt said: “It will have conveniences unknown before, such as retiring rooms for ladies and gentlemen.”

“The future of the permanent temple structure is uncertain inasmuch as no one knows where the lines of the city will be drawn when the rebuilding of it will be completed,” he continued. “It has been the aim of the congregation for years to have a fine temple structure, but when that will be erected no one can say at the present time.”

It took a full two decades, but in 1926 we were triumphantly heralded the new Emanu-El building at 2 Lake St. — still its site today — as a pageant in five episodes. Yes, we ran a full two pages of verse, complete with stage directions, maidens dancing and speeches from Emanu-El rabbis of the past. The pageant traced the history of the community and culminated with a symbolic presentation of the new Reform temple, which was designed by architect Arthur Brown Jr., the man behind many of San Francisco’s landmarks including City Hall.

A shot of the sanctuary interior ran on our front cover in 1926. (Photo/J. Archives)
A shot of the sanctuary interior ran on our front cover in 1926. (Photo/J. Archives)

“Ascending rows of russet roofs combine
To glorify a dome of autumn red.
This residence of mortar, brick and tile,
With cloistered court, and Temple House near by,
Shall be a symbol of our fealty,
To God the Architect Supreme of Life.”

In that same issue, we carried a detailed description of the new building (this time not in verse) headlined: “The New Temple Emanu-El — A Dream Come True!” We also called it “one of the most beautiful synagogues in the entire Jewish world.”

“Architecturally, it follows the Levantine style, representing a fusion of the architectural styles of Asia Minor, Palestine and the Mediterranean world. … An atmosphere of reverence is offered by the court which will prepare the worshipper, on entering, for meditation and devotion. The planners added further to the beauty of the ensemble by providing a fountain in the center of the atrium to serve as a reminder of the ancient Fountain of Ablutions in the Temple Court at Jerusalem. Passing over a porch, the worshipper reaches the main portal and in its great niche he finds an outer everlasting light, crowned by the two tablets of the sacred law.”

With its bold dome, it was a stunning building then. It still is today, though it’s ready for a refresh. And the words we wrote in 1926 at the building’s inauguration still ring true for what the congregation hopes to accomplish with the new renovation.

“Completion of the Temple marks the passing of another milestone in the life of the congregation and in the growth of the San Francisco Jewish community. It is an achievement crowning an inspiration … by the small group of pioneers who came together in little Yerba Buena and founded the Congregation Emanu-El dedicated to God and to the cause of Judaism.”

Maya Mirsky
Maya Mirsky

Maya Mirsky is a J. Staff Writer based in Oakland.