A Synagogue on Wheels
As many realtors will tell you, the first three rules of real estate are, “location, location, location.” Well, in the late 1960s, location presented a very serious problem for transit planners. Construction of Metro’s Red Line was getting underway and WMATA had acquired the block bounded by 5th, 6th, F and G Streets, NW to serve as a staging area and, eventually, the home of Metro’s headquarters.
There was only one problem. The block was also the home of Washington’s first synagogue building, which had been standing on the site since 1876. While the Adas Israel congregation had moved out of the building in the early 1900s, it still held historical significance and preservationists did not want to see it demolished.
In response to the concerns, the National Capital Planning Commission recommended that the building be moved… But where? And how? And, even if a solution could be worked out, who would pay for it? After all, it’s not exactly easy or cheap to pick up an almost century-old synagogue and plop it down somewhere else.
As then president of the Jewish Historical Society of Greater Washington Henry Brylawski put it, “You need miracles.” In D.C., a miracle is synonymous with disparate organizations, interests and governments working together efficiently. But, it actually happened in this case! As preservationists turned up the heat and got the synagogue added to the National Register of Historic Places, officials worked out a deal.
Leaders from the JHSGW worked with D.C. government and Federal officials to identify an alternative plot of land at 3rd and G Streets, NW. WMATA then sold the synagogue building to the city for $10 and the D.C. government leased it to the JHSGW for 99 years at $1 per year. In order to pay for the move and restoration of the building, which was expected to total $150,000, JHSGW leaders appealed to the Department of Housing and Urban Development. HUD agreed to cover part of the cost and the Society raised the rest.
With the deal set, the Society contracted with William B. Patram and Company to execute the move. Patram spent two months studying and bracing the building. The first floor was deemed too weak to survive a move. So, the top two floors, which had been the original sanctuary and the women's balcony, were lifted off the structure and loaded on to a 28 wheel dollie.
On December 18, 1969, the old synagogue took to the streets. It took nearly three hours to move the 270 ton structure three blocks, and the process was complicated by a ruptured gas line. Once at 3rd and G St., the building was loaded onto a temporary “crib” while a new foundation was constructed. Success!
Update: In 2016, the synagogue was temporarily moved again -- about 40 feet away from its 1969 landing spot -- to make way for the Capitol Crossing development, which will construct three city blocks over I-395. Within a few years, the building will be relocated (again!) to the corner of 3rd and F St., NW, and the Jewish Historical Society of Greater Washington will open a "state of the art Jewish museum" next door.