Posted on June 21st, 2012 by Rachel
A blog post by Kierra Foley, LSS Archaeology Intern
Hulking Doric columns and a stately pale façade cast shadows upon the sleepy downtown street, an imposing and authoritative presence in this otherwise aesthetically lackluster area. The building looks suited for housing a body of people pulsing with the commanding spirit of Athenian democracy, not necessarily the spirit of modern Western religious thought. Briefly, I scratch my head – if worship were to occur within this structure’s walls, it seems as though it would be of a pagan variety (specifically Greco-Roman!), but certainly not anything rooted in the Hebrew Bible, like the Jewish and Catholic congregations that have found homes here in years past. Even more likely, it looks to be an administrative or governmental building, a place that has little to do with worship altogether.
The Lloyd Street Synagogue
Over the past few weeks and for the coming weeks, this architecturally deceptive structure – the Lloyd Street Synagogue (or LSS) – has come to be my home. I’m both a Near Eastern Studies major at Johns Hopkins University and the JMM’s LSS Archaeology intern. For those of you who closely follow the oh-so-riveting lives of JMM interns, this is not your first time hearing from me, as I was the Collections intern this past winter. My task is to process everything within the synagogue, including objects recovered from recent archaeological excavations. Naturally, I spend a great deal of time within the synagogue, rifling through the endless of web of objects that call the synagogue home.
The wild intern in its natural habitat, tagged and ready to accession!
However, the outside of the structure has piqued my interest more than anything that lies within the building. Why would one make a synagogue so…stately? The physicality of Greco-Roman art has lost its spiritual integrity over the past few millennia, instead representing intellectual progress and highly structured administrative systems. This phenomenon occurs especially in American architecture, which from its outset aimed to embody the democratic ideals previously founded in Grecian antiquity. The Neoclassicism rampant in our nation’s capital is exemplary of this trend; this is simply an extension of the Revolutionary War era movement to borrow from Grecian antiquity in both scholasticism and politics – a movement pioneered in order to ensure a flourishing democratic state. Americans have adopted Classical architecture in order to establish visual harmony and organization, creating a statement of august power, a far cry from the spirituality Westerners so often achieve with the Gothic architectural principles of “height and light”. The B’nai Israel synagogue’s plan seems to full heartedly embrace the common modern practice of illustrating divine mystery via breathtaking architecture. Contrastingly, the Lloyd Street Synagogue makes no such effort.
The façade of the B’nai Israel synagogue combines both Moorish and Gothic elements to make an engaging exterior and stunning interior.
So, if not a communication of the sublime, what was the intended affect of the synagogue’s external aesthetic? It was constructed in 1845, the height of Neoclassicism, in the Greek Revival style. A clear disdain for Roman features can be observed in this building, rendering it Greek Revival in the purest form of the term. It was designed by Robert Cary Long Jr., Baltimore’s first native and trained architect. In many ways, Long was an architectural Renaissance man, wearing hats that ranged from the Greek Revival we examine here, to high Gothicism, to Egyptian Revival. A learned man, it’s more than likely that Long and the founders of the Baltimore Hebrew Congregation (the LSS’s first congregation who oversaw its construction) had a pointed intent.
Long himself, from the museum’s collections (CP 3.2010.001). Courtesy of the Maryland Historical Society.
Though far from an expert on such matters, from my time in the synagogue and my access to its inner workings and rich history, I have several theories developed as to why the synagogue was constructed in this way. The first reason being that the congregation wanted to remain inconspicuous, thus disguising themselves in a veil of Neoclassicism – an unlikely façade for worship. At this time, Jewish culture and religion was not met by gentiles with the utmost pleasure, and Anti-Semitism ran rampant through the streets of downtownBaltimore. With a wholly “American” covering for Jewish activity, the congregation could remain largely undetected by other intolerant Baltimoreans. In similar vein, the majority of the Baltimore Hebrew Congregation was comprised of German immigrants.
Rabbi Abraham Rice, the first spiritual leader of the Baltimore Hebrew Congregation and the first ordained rabbi in the U.S.
The attempt to “Americanize” the German mindset of the congregation was seen in its transition from strictly Orthodox to Reform in the early 1870s, as a campaign to modernize traditional behaviors was observable in new phenomena like the abolition of gender stratified seating in the April of 1973. The first step to modernization was taken in 1845 with the construction of the LSS, as it was a distant cry from all things German and a direct embrace of all things American. Still wholly Jewish, the building was also of the same nature as the American capital, beautifully merging both Judaism and the American spirit. Neoclassicism also may have been required to create an air of organization. The Baltimore Hebrew Congregation was one of the first established inAmerica, and a need to make the building an authoritative presence is valid, as this could potentially stimulate an air of reliability and productivity.
However, this is all postulation from the mind of an intern. Perhaps if we could go back in time and ask Long himself, he’d answer, “Oh, it just looked lovely!”
Posted on June 12th, 2012 by Rachel
A blog post by Karen Bishop, Archaeology Intern
One of the first things I noticed walking into the main floor of the Lloyd Street Synagogue were the windows. Not the colorful, glowing, starburst-patterned stained glass windows above the ark, but the rippled square windows on the side walls. Whenever I see antique glass I always think, “wow, this building is really old,” and I feel like a lot of other people have that thought, too. The appearance of old windows has always fascinated me: the variance in transparency and wavy patterns look like a suspended liquid. In fact, I was always of the belief that glass actually was a liquid. That’s why the bottom of stained glass in medieval cathedrals is thicker than the top, and why centuries old homes have river-like patterns running down the windows. When I went to research the liquid properties of glass to explain the appearance of the LSS windows, however, I found out that glass is in fact not a liquid, this is just a myth.
The truth is that if you were to examine the thickness of cathedral glass or appearance of home windows when they were installed hundreds of years ago, you would make the same observations. The variances observed today are simply a result of the methods used to make glass ‘back in the day’. Glassmakers used hand-blown techniques that made it impossible to achieve a perfectly smooth, even texture. Glass is noticeably thicker at the bottom likely because it was easier to install it that way. However, there is some truth to the thought of glass being a slow moving liquid. Glass is an amorphous solid: when molten glass cools, the molecules retain the random patterns of the liquid state, but the bonds formed are strong, like that of a solid. The nature of glass still baffles scientists, though, so it’s no surprise this myth is so widespread.
If you would like to know more about the nature of glass and the exciting debate about it within the realm of scientific research (because I know you all do!), you can read the New York Times article The Nature of Glass Remains Anything but Clear.
Posted on December 17th, 2010 by Rachel
A blog post by associate director Anita Kassof.
Three congregations—two Jewish and one Catholic—worshipped at the Lloyd Street Synagogue, and each altered the building to suit its spiritual and communal needs. Among their alterations: Baltimore Hebrew Congregation (1845-1889) added a 30 foot addition to the east end of the synagogue; St. John the Baptist Roman Catholic Church (1889-1905) rearranged the balcony pews, added interior stairs, and reconfigured the lower level; and Shomrei Mishmeres (1905-1960) reconfigured the mikvehs (ritual baths) and added decorative paint.
We learned about many of these alterations through intensive paint and architectural analyses, and several archaeological excavations in the mikveh area. They’re exciting finds, and we wanted to convey that sense of discovery to our visitors. So when we developed The Synagogue Speaks, our exhibition in and about the building, we incorporated “history windows” so visitors could take a look behind the scenes to see some of those alterations. The windows enable the building to speak for itself about how it’s changed over time.
Here are some of my favorites:
Cut through wall. Photo by Will Kirk.
This wall, now part of an interior hallway, was the outside wall of the Lloyd Street Synagogue until 1860, when Baltimore Hebrew Congregation expanded the building. For many years, there was no doorway in this wall. The only access to the new portion of the lower level was from an exterior door, which is just to the left of this view.
The doorway in this wall (on the right in the photo) was cut sometime between 1880 and 1910. It looks as if a stone mason had to hack through the substantial stone foundation to make the doorway, shoring things up with crude timbers.
Column, photo by Will Kirk.
The plaster residue on this column reveals that a wall once abutted its east and west sides. The wall was constructed when the synagogue was built in 1845. According to a newspaper article from the time, the lower level had “two good school¬rooms, and a large hall filled up as a temporary Synagogue, to be used as occasion may require.”
The column also has plaster scars on its north and south faces. These are from a later wall, which St. John’s (a Lithuanian Catholic congregation) constructed during its 1895 renovation. St. John’s used the lower level for parish and community events.
Not visible in this photograph: a name, possibly Lithuanian, penciled on the column. Perhaps a workman signed his name during the St. John’s period.
Stencil wall, photo by Will Kirk.
This image shows a “window” in a layer of 1960s era drywall. When we stripped away the drywall, we discovered stencils and paint from earlier eras. Photomicrography—the process of photographing a tiny sample of paint under a microscope—helped us figure out just what used to be here.
Archaeological paint layers.
This sample shows that after the wall was built and plastered, it was covered with a light gray lime coating that later was painted yellow ochre (layers 1-6). The bright blue band (layer 7) indicates that a mural might once have been painted on the wall. This is still visible on some areas of the wall. The top layer (14) shows the stencil that was concealed by the 1960s drywall.
It’s no surprise that Shomrei Mishmeres, the last congregation to occupy the Lloyd Street Synagogue, applied decorative stencils to the walls of the lower level. Daily worship services were often held here, and one former congregant recalls that the area was beautiful.
The synagogue has a lot more to reveal, so come visit soon and see what the building has to say to you.