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Restoration: Early Sanctuary

Project: Touro Synagogue, Newport, RI

Architect: David L. Bittermann, National Park Service, Lowell, MA

General Contractor: Shawmut Design & Construction, Boston, MA; Claude Levesque, project manager

Historic Preservation Consultant: Judith E. Selwyn, Preservation Technology Associates, Boston, MA

By Eve M. Kahn

Not to conjecture too much about distant historical moments, but in 1781 and 1790, George Washington definitely stood gazing over balusters, entablatures, brass and bronze chandeliers and Ionic and Corinthian columns at Touro Synagogue in Newport, RI. We don't know whether he knew that the 12 columns symbolize the 12 Tribes of Israel legendarily descended from Jacob's sons, or that the fashionable Georgian building represented a leap of assimilation for Newport's Jews. We do know that pride in American tolerance ran through Washington's mind during those visits. As he wrote to the congregation in 1790, the government he'd just helped found would welcome "the Children of the stock of Abraham," and would give "to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance."

The 1763 synagogue now looks much as it did in Washington's day, thanks to a $3.5-million restoration orchestrated by Shawmut Design and Construction with National Park Service architect David L. Bittermann. Every detail, down to the pew deadbolts, Ark hinges and the lawn's pebbly swale, has been shrewdly and thriftily researched, reconsidered and re-engineered to meet modern codes. "Several times, in the course of the project, we ended up changing our line of thinking," says Shawmut project manager Claude Levesque. "Our solutions got better and better along the way."

The synagogue's original patrons descended from a band of 15 Curaçaoan families who had fled to Newport in 1658. The Portuguese Inquisition had driven them out (just as the Spanish Inquisition had driven their ancestors out of Iberia in the 1490s). The Brazilians thrived in the religious freedom of Rhode Island, which Roger Williams had founded as a "lively experiment" in diversity in 1635. By the 1750s, Newport had attracted scores of Caribbean and European Jews. The congregation, led by a Dutch-born rabbi, Isaac Touro, hobnobbed with the town's Gentile powerbrokers, including Peter Harrison (1716-1777), a York-born merchant turned self-taught architect.

On business trips to London, Harrison amassed a library of 30 architectural monographs illustrating the work of luminaries like Palladio, William Kent, James Gibbs and Inigo Jones. Based on those precedents, he only designed half a dozen buildings, yet is considered a father of American architecture. Historian William H. Jordy has described Harrison as "the finest designer in colonial Newport and among the finest in the colonies," as well as a pioneer of "the transit to America of the lyric purity of Renaissance classicism."

Touro Synagogue was Harrison's second major commission in Newport (he had completed a temple-fronted library in 1750), and today is the most intact example of his work. Its only anti-Classical gesture is its siting, askew to the street grid so that worshippers face east toward Jerusalem. Its hip-roofed mass of English brickwork – Flemish bond on the sanctuary, common bond on a schoolhouse wing – has brownstone sills and a belt course alongside wood window trim sand-painted to simulate brownstone.

Jordy describes the building as "austerely reticent on the exterior and most exquisitely wrought within." The balustraded readers' platform, the bimah, is at the center of the room, in keeping with the traditions of Sephardim (Jews of Spanish descent). A trapdoor in the bimah floor leads to an underground room, which was probably meant as a symbolic refuge from the Inquisition's persecutions. The sanctuary's Ionic columns support a separate gallery, ringed in Corinthian columns, for female worshippers. Illumination pours in through story-tall arched windows, which are augmented by polished chandeliers hung from rods studded with gilded wooden spheres.

The synagogue's first heyday was short-lived: the British occupied Newport in 1776, burned some 300 buildings, drove out most of the citizens (including Rabbi Touro and most of his followers), and turned the synagogue into a military hospital. After the war, it served briefly as a statehouse, courthouse and city hall. In the early 1800s, Rabbi Touro's sons bequeathed funds for building maintenance, staffing and a fashionable granite fence topped in obelisks. But the congregation remained so tiny that the sanctuary was only open for a few ceremonies a year.

Not until 1883 did enough European Jewish immigrants settle in Newport for the synagogue to hold weekly services. The landmark also started attracting tourists; in 1946, as the U.S.'s oldest surviving synagogue, it was declared a national historic site affiliated with the National Park Service. "There are only a handful of privately owned sites affiliated with us," explains David Bittermann, a Park Service project manager.

He worked closely with congregation leadership to supply technical assistance and give advice on planning the project and hiring Shawmut. In the 1950s, the congregation had funded a comprehensive restoration, making a few misguided decisions for Shawmut to undo. "There was canvas wrapped around the columns and covering interior plaster walls," explains Levesque. "When the fabric was removed, we found several areas of deteriorating plaster, some lath detached from brickwork, and some rusted cut nails. The woodwork was in great shape, but everything had been painted a uniform gray."

While keeping the synagogue open for tours during the summer season, Shawmut shrouded the exterior in netting and scaffolded the 3,600-sq.ft. interior. Newmans, Ltd., a Newport-based metal restoration firm, meanwhile removed and dismantled the lighting and hardware. Levesque recalls that the construction crews "had to strip 22 paint layers off the brick, brownstone and wood. At least, thankfully, we only had to spot-repoint the mortar."

Shawmut re-created the exterior's original paint colors with PROSOCO's breathable masonry coatings. The workers installed a new slate roof over a repaired deck and incorporated new copper-lined gutters into the cornice. They put back original drainage swales along the foundation, although these beach-rock troughs are aesthetic, not functional – the downspouts actually drain into an underground drywell. On the portico, the crews Dutchman-patched the brownstone steps and re-applied brown sand paint on the wood columns and archways.

In the interior, Shawmut partially sanded the woodwork and columns – enough to reveal the tree trunks' astonishing texture of knots and vertical graining – then put back the bone-and-lichen palette from Washington's era. The Founding Father would not, however, recognize Touro's seating arrangement of 1950s Windsor chairs; male congregants originally either stood or sat on benches along the walls, while dignitaries occupied a box seat with crisscross-pattern wainscoting and women filled the upper gallery's pews.

Into that gallery's floor and the coved ceiling, Shawmut invisibly snuck electrical and fire detection and suppression chases. "Maintaining patina was very important to us, even though the building has to function in the modern world," Bittermann says. The gallery's radiators are one of the site's few detectable signs of modernity: lichen-colored, high-output, low-signature units from Ward Hill, MA-based Runtal Radiators hug the baseboards. The controls for the mechanicals are jammed into a 1950s basement vault (but not visible when the bimah's trapdoor is opened); the instruction books alone fill three binders, totaling nine inches thick. "We've installed a Vesda aspiration system for smoke detection," says Levesque. "It constantly monitors the air's particulate content. We calibrated the system with all the candles lit as if for services in the sanctuary, so the alarm won't go off during a ceremony."

Newmans rebuilt the synagogue's dozens of candlesticks, as well as chandeliers containing hundreds of components apiece, sconces with arms so narrow that only new Teflon-coated wires would fit inside, and glittery silver finials for torah scrolls. Newmans also brought in forged-iron, leather-strung sash pins that slide into the windows' new stainless-steel pinholes.

The gilded spheres on the light-fixture rods were also restored. Each wooden ball had originally been toenailed – assembled with dozens of crisscrossing nails. "Those were a nightmare to disassemble," says Levesque. "When they were put back together, magnets were inlaid into the wood to hold the halves together. As a team we tried to think ahead about everything we did at the synagogue – understanding that eventually, hopefully not soon, another generation of restorers will be here." TB

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