It was not a typical moving day. The oldest synagogue in Washington, D.C., was physically transported (on wheels) down 3rd Street NW on Wednesday morning, Jan. 9. This was the first major step in building the new Capital Jewish Museum, expected to open in 2021.
Rabbi Hannah Spiro of Capitol Hill-based Hill Havurah literally started things rolling with a traditional Jewish traveler’s prayer before the 300-ton structure made its way one block from 3rd and G to its permanent home at 3rd and F Streets NW.
The structure was originally built in 1876 on the corner of 6th and G Streets NW as the home of Adas Israel congregation. Its dedication was attended by President Ulysses S. Grant, the first sitting U.S. president to attend a Jewish service (which was newsworthy at the time). It took three months and $4,000 to build.
In 1908, having outgrown the 25-by-60-foot building in the midst of the great wave of European immigration, the congregation moved a few blocks away to a larger structure at 6th and I Streets NW (now the Sixth & I Historic Synagogue cultural center), putting the smaller building up for sale. Now located in the Cleveland Park neighborhood, Adas Israel is the largest Conservative synagogue in Washington, D.C.
Over the years, before becoming a museum, the building housed an African American church, a Greek Orthodox church, a deli, a barbershop, a barbecue restaurant, a bicycle store, a dental practice and a coffee shop.
This last move was its third. The first happened back in 1969 to make way for WMATA’s headquarters. Then, two years ago, the building was moved again as the construction of the seven-acre Capitol Crossing development got underway.
The building was converted to the Jewish Historical Society of Greater Washington’s Lillian and Albert Small Jewish Museum in 1975. At its new site, the physical facility for the museum will be expanded.
According to organizers, the “new museum will have an unconventional, experimental spirit – engaging visitors through immersive storytelling, compelling artifacts and hands-on interactive experiences that explore the city’s story through a Jewish lens.”
Items from the new museum’s collection will be on display, including a lace collar worn by Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, a banner carried by Jewish lobbyist Hyman Bookbinder during the 1963 March on Washington and a law school notebook used by Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis.
Delivering remarks to the assembled spectators on Wednesday were Kara Blond, executive director of the Capital Jewish Museum; Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton; Ward 2 Council member Jack Evans; At-Large Council member Elissa Silverman; Jon Parrish Peede, chairman of the National Endowment for the Humanities; and Adam Rubinson, a board member of the Jewish Historical Society of Greater Washington.
“We will tell the stories of the Jews who came to Washington to have an impact on public discourse and on the course of our country, and about those with deep roots who literally shaped the city that we know today,” said Blond in her remarks. “And remember the metaphor of this ‘little building that could’ about the profusion of urban life over its first 143 years and the vibrant future that’s still to come.”
View Jeff Malet’s photos of the synagogue move by clicking on the photo icons below.