Congregation Emanu-El CFO Elena Gary visits the synagogue, which is now very much under renovation, Aug. 2, 2023. (Photo/Aaron Levy-Wolins)
Congregation Emanu-El CFO Elena Gary visits the synagogue, which is now very much under renovation, Aug. 2, 2023. (Photo/Aaron Levy-Wolins)

Emanu-El’s centennial face-lift is underway 

For nearly a century, the great edifice of Congregation Emanu-El, with its red tiled roofs and soaring dome atop, has filled out nearly a full city block in San Francisco’s Presidio Heights, buzzing with Jewish life. Now that energy has been replaced with the sounds of hammers, drills, backhoes, excavators, falling debris and other noises of destruction and reconstruction.

Today demolition crews and other workers come in and out of the fenced-off building. People in hard hats and brightly colored safety vests toss bits of tile from the roof, while others rip out interior paneling and fixtures. The five-story building’s once grand courtyard, with its stone fountain, is filled with piles of wooden doors, wiring and other detritus.

Emanu-El — the largest synagogue in the Bay Area by membership and, founded in 1850, one of the oldest in California — is undergoing a massive renovation, seismic retrofit and expansion. From the street, the mammoth building will look largely the same, with the original main entrance reopened and newly highlighted. But once inside the courtyard, it’ll be an entirely new world.

The project, originally estimated at $79 million when it was first announced in 2019, will now cost $91 million and is set to be completed in 2025, 100 years since construction originally began in 1925. Dedicated in 1926, the building was designed by Arthur Brown Jr., the same architect behind the gleaming dome of San Francisco’s City Hall.

J. was granted access to the construction site on Aug. 2, about six weeks into the renovation process, to see the current state of the iconic building.


(Photo/Aaron Levy-Wolins)
(Photo/Aaron Levy-Wolins)

The courtyard where a fountain once stood is being excavated. Workers plan to dig 15 feet down through the sand to build an entirely new floor of offices and to help stabilize the building with a seismic retrofit.


(Photo/Aaron Levy-Wolins)
(Photo/Aaron Levy-Wolins)

Now devoid of decorations and art, the top floor of the building is all gray and beige, save for bright orange notes to the demolition crews scrawled on the walls — and these stained-glass windows that represent the Israelite tribes at the end of a hallway overlooking the courtyard.


(Photo/Aaron Levy-Wolins)
(Photo/Aaron Levy-Wolins)

While many historical elements will be demolished, some details will be saved for reuse — such as the finials atop these pillars in the courtyard, which will be made into benches in the future.


(Photo/Aaron Levy-Wolins)
(Photo/Aaron Levy-Wolins)

This new large gap is in the side of the courtyard that had been used as the secure main entrance in recent years. When the project is complete, visitors will once again enter through the original grand arched entrance.


(Photo/Aaron Levy-Wolins)
(Photo/Aaron Levy-Wolins)

While most of the fixtures were gone when J. visited, workers were still ripping out lighting and other materials prior to demolition.


(Photo/Aaron Levy-Wolins)
(Photo/Aaron Levy-Wolins)

Workers remove the building’s distinctive red clay roof tiles, tossing them into a massive pile in the center of the courtyard along with other debris.


(Photo/Aaron Levy-Wolins)
(Photo/Aaron Levy-Wolins)

The near-centenarian building’s face-lift will significantly expand it, with plans to build everything from new classrooms and clergy offices to a children’s play area on the roof.


(Photo/Aaron Levy-Wolins)
(Photo/Aaron Levy-Wolins)

A worker carries a wall panel out of the building — one more thing to add to the growing pile in the courtyard.

Aaron Levy-Wolins
Aaron Levy-Wolins

Aaron Levy-Wolins is J.'s visual intern and a contributing editor at The Bold Italic. See more of his work on Instagram @aaron_levywolins.