The JEA Building Today: Or, A Building in Disguise

Posted on March 30th, 2017 by

Marvin and I recently had the privilege of touring the old JEA Building, now owned by our neighbors Helping Up Mission. There’s not much that physically remains from the Jewish Educational Alliance, but Tom Stone, Director of Facilities and Operations at Helping Up, was able to point out a few areas where clues to the building’s original use can still be seen.

Left: The JEA’s Levy Building, circa 1925. Gift of Jack Chandler, JMM 1992.231.105 Center: The Seafarer’s International Union Hall, circa 1970. Gift of Jack Chandler. JMM 1992.231.255 Right: 1216 E. Baltimore Street as it looks today. Taken by JMM staff, March 29, 2017

Left: The JEA’s Levy Building, circa 1925. Gift of Jack Chandler, JMM 1992.231.105
Center: The Seafarer’s International Union Hall, circa 1970. Gift of Jack Chandler. JMM 1992.231.255
Right: 1216 E. Baltimore Street as it looks today. Taken by JMM staff, March 29, 2017

In 1913, the JEA’s Levy Building opened for business at 1216 E. Baltimore Street. It was designed and built to their specifications, with classrooms, a two-level gymnasium, and two rooftop play areas – altogether, a modern, up-to-date facility for East Baltimore’s Jewish community.

The JEA basketball team posed in the gymnasium, 1921. Jacob Kadish is in the top right. Gift of Shirley Kadish Davids, JMM 2017.1.1

The JEA basketball team posed in the gymnasium, 1921. Jacob Kadish is in the top right. Gift of Shirley Kadish Davids, JMM 2017.1.1

Dedication of the Moses Hecht Work out room at the Jewish Education Alliance, 1944. Note the ceiling-high window (opening to the hall) and transom; traces of these can still be seen over the shorter 1950s doors in the current building.  Gift of Eleanor K. Levy, JMM 1991.20.5

Dedication of the Moses Hecht Work out room at the Jewish Education Alliance, 1944. Note the ceiling-high window (opening to the hall) and transom; traces of these can still be seen over the shorter 1950s doors in the current building. Gift of Eleanor K. Levy, JMM 1991.20.5

By the late 1940s, however, the building was no longer quite so modern, and much of the community it served had left the East Baltimore neighborhood. In 1952 the JEA merged with the Young Men’s and Women’s Hebrew Association and Camp Woodlands to form the new Jewish Community Center, and the old facility was sold to the Seafarer’s International Union (SIU).

“Seamen Open Modern Hall,” The Baltimore Sun, November 11, 1954.

“Seamen Open Modern Hall,” The Baltimore Sun, November 11, 1954.

The SIU, naturally enough, needed something a little different from the building. They modernized the façade, updated the infrastructure, and created new spaces designed to fit the needs of their members: a “hiring hall,” with notice boards advertising shipping jobs; rooms for card playing and pool tables; event spaces, including a solarium and a cocktail lounge; a large, modern cafeteria and kitchen; union offices; and a retail shop.  In some respects, the building’s new use was not too unlike the original: recreational, educational, and social spaces for an members of a specific community. Nonetheless, so complete was the transformation that the Baltimore Sun, in its 1954 description of the grand opening, noted “the structure… would never be recognized as the former Jewish Alliance Building.”

The Sun was right. About the only original element still easily visible from the outside is the rear rooftop deck, used as a playground by the JEA and a “sun deck” by the SIU.  It’s surrounded by a low brick wall and a high chain link fence, and it’s pretty much the only point of connection for modern viewers (such as myself) attempting to convince themselves that, yes, this really is the same building.

Left: Children playing on the JEA roof, circa 1945. Gift of Jack Chandler, JMM 1992.231.029 Right: The current view toward downtown from the rear roof deck. Taken by JMM staff, March 7, 2017

Left: Children playing on the JEA roof, circa 1945. Gift of Jack Chandler, JMM 1992.231.029
Right: The current view toward downtown from the rear roof deck. Taken by JMM staff, March 7, 2017

With a closer look, though, the JEA can still be seen: on the front, where the applied façade is cracked in tidy half-circles above the 3rd floor windows, mimicking the original brick arches underneath; inside, in the covered-over transoms peeping above the newer, shorter interior doors; and in the old gymnasium, left relatively alone but (for safety reasons) only visible from the doorway.

The arch of bricks above the window want to be seen! Taken by JMM staff, March 29, 2017

The arch of bricks above the window want to be seen! Taken by JMM staff, March 29, 2017

And yes, I apologize; I was distracted by reality and did not take many photos on our tour, so you’ll just have to imagine these things.  (And none of my photos of the gymnasium came out; it was pretty dark.) More visible, and more easily photographed, are parts of the SIU’s modern update, such as the “solarium” installed in what had been the JEA’s front rooftop playground, and the ship-like design of the SIU cocktail lounge on the first floor.

The SIU solarium, built where the front rooftop playground was originally. Taken by JMM staff, March 7, 2017

The SIU solarium, built where the front rooftop playground was originally. Taken by JMM staff, March 7, 2017

The jazzy maritime-themed SIU cocktail lounge included two porthole windows revealing tanks of fish.  The large kitchen (through the open door) was in an addition built by the SIU. Taken by JMM staff, March 7, 2017

The jazzy maritime-themed SIU cocktail lounge included two porthole windows revealing tanks of fish. The large kitchen (through the open door) was in an addition built by the SIU. Taken by JMM staff, March 7, 2017

Looking at the east side of the building from inside the 1950s addition, you can see where the smooth, modern façade was applied directly over the original brick.  Taken by JMM staff, March 7, 2017

Looking at the east side of the building from inside the 1950s addition, you can see where the smooth, modern façade was applied directly over the original brick. Taken by JMM staff, March 7, 2017

So yes, those of you who – like me – doubted that this is the same building, it turns out that if you remove the front stoop and change the classical windows to big sheets of plate glass, the whole character of a building is altered. But behind the mid-century disguise, the original elements can still tell part of their story.  And thus ends your architectural history lesson for the day.

JoannaA blog post by Collections Manager Joanna Church. To read more posts by Joanna click HERE.

Posted in jewish museum of maryland




Great Lessons from Humble Places

Posted on March 24th, 2017 by

Have you noticed our obsession with top ten lists?  Our tendency to pay attention to something when it’s the first, or the newest, or the largest?

Museums have a long pedigree in displaying the rare and exceptional, but there is an inherent distortion of history in an exclusive focus on the “most important.”  In the 21st century, in an era of shared authority between visitor and curator, we need to re-learn the art of elevating the ordinary – of making the lives of everyday folks as compelling as the extraordinary.

On the recent trip to the Council of American Jewish Museums conference in Massachusetts, I found two institutions doing just that.  Neither would describe itself as a “museum” per se, but both are worthy of a visit.

Entering Vilna Shul

Entering Vilna Shul

The first was the Vilna Shul in Boston.  Built in 1919, the Vilna Shul (or as its original sign says in a Boston accent – the “Vilner Congregation”) is not the oldest, nor the largest, nor the most beautiful religious space by any stretch of the imagination.  It is rather the last remaining synagogue of the great wave of Eastern European migration to Boston’s West End (out of twenty or more than once were there).  Like our own Lloyd Street Synagogue the Vilna Shul was rescued from a city plan to tear it down and put in a parking lot.

Vilna's stained glass window

Vilna’s stained glass window

The architecture is a pastiche – a little Georgian, a little Romanesque, a little Eastern European folk.  It’s most notable feature is its huge stained glass Star of David, unambiguously facing the street.  The interior has some elements in common with LSS, including chandeliers purchased from a neighboring church.  But also some things I would never associate with a synagogue of this period – huge skylights, and in lieu of a balcony, a women’s section set up like a raked theater.  The Shul has literally pealed back the layers of paint to reveal its historic stenciling.

Skylight

Skylight

There is no golden age of the Vilna Shul.  As our guide pointed out, even by the time this was built, the Jewish community had begun to move elsewhere.  Yet this humble congregation offers a glimpse into Jewish immigrant life that is every bit as important and interesting as the most magnificent temple designed by Frank Lloyd Wright.

The Yiddish Book Center

The Yiddish Book Center

The second non-museum on my “must visit” list is the Yiddish Book Center in Amherst. Walking up to the building, the architecture already builds expectations – after all, how many American buildings are designed to resemble a shtetl?  The Yiddish Book Center takes “humble” to a whole new level… it’s logo is a goat, the same goat that we celebrate in Had Gadya each Passover, the gentle goat of the Yiddish lullaby Oyfn Pripetchik.  The exhibits do not exist in great galleries but rather mostly meander through the stacks of thousands of books.

Sharing one of the Yiddish newspapers in the collection.

Sharing one of the Yiddish newspapers in the collection.

 

The exhibits and tours don’t try to claim that Yiddish is the most influential language – noting that only 39,000 books were printed in Yiddish in the century in which Yiddish books were being printed.  Instead the focus is on the history embedded in the language.  A Yiddish linotype machine and cases of type are used to illustrate the intersection of technology and language.  A giant story book encasing a video screen connects themes in Yiddish literature to contemporary movies and plays.

Check out that address

Check out that address

Perhaps most intriguing they have a crate on display.  There is nothing terribly special about the crate except the shipped-from address.  The shipped-from address is Zimbabwe and suddenly the crate becomes a vehicle for telling the incredible story of books that escaped with their owner from Lithuania to Shanghai before the Holocaust and from Shanghai to Zimbabwe after WWII and from Zimbabwe to Amherst, MA in the 1990s (with duplicates returned to the Jewish community in Lithuania).  An otherwise ordinary crate turns into a ride through modern Jewish history.

What a fun "madlibs" style interactive!

What a fun “madlibs” style interactive!

It’s definitely worth the extra mile if you find yourself in New England.  If it provides an incentive, know that it is on my “top ten” list of Jewish sites to visit, and I say that in all humility.

MarvinBlog post by Executive Director Marvin Pinkert. To read more posts from Marvin click HERE.

Posted in jewish museum of maryland




Athenian Judaism…in Baltimore?

Posted on June 21st, 2012 by

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 in jewish museum of maryland




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