Jewish Historical Society of Greater Washington | Lillian & Albert Small Jewish Museum

Programs & Tours: Virtual Tour of 1876 Sanctuary

Note: Use the links in the following text to discover images and more details about the historic 1876 Adas Israel Synagogue.

The 1876 Adas Israel synagogue building is the oldest synagogue structure in Washington, but it is not the oldest congregation. Washington Hebrew Congregation was the city’s first Jewish congregation, formed in 1852. The congregants followed a trend among Jewish immigrants at the time—reforming their religious practices as they assimilated into American life. They allowed men and women to sit together, began to pray in English, and, eventually, purchased an organ for use during Sabbath services. In 1869, thirty-eight members of the 17-year-old Washington Hebrew Congregation resigned in order to return to more traditional Orthodox Jewish rituals. Worshipping first in rented accommodations, the new Adas Israel Congregation soon began to raise funds for a building of their own.

Sanctuary exteriorBy 1873, they had raised enough money to purchase a lot on the southeastern corner of Sixth and G Streets, NW, for $2,300, and within three years signed a contract with Joseph Williams, a Washington brick maker and contractor, to build a synagogue on the site. The simple, unpretentious structure was finished in just three months at a cost of $4,800. President Ulysses S. Grant attended the dedication on June 9, 1876.

The style of the brick edifice, just 25 feet wide and 60 feet long, has been called “stripped-down Romanesque Revival.” Notable features included a protruding bay on the east (now north) end to house the holy ark, a small cupola, and tall, narrow windows, each crowned by a simple wooden fan design. A recessed marble lunette at the front identifies the synagogue and the year it was erected.

The sanctuary occupied the second and third floors and accommodated 350 worshippers. The holy ark was at the east end, and a women’s gallery ran along the other three sides. The bimah (reader’s platform), stood in front of the ark, and the hall was fitted out with pine pews. The first floor originally contained a schoolroom, meeting space and caretaker’s quarters and housed a mikvah (ritual bath).

When the growing congregation relocated to a larger sanctuary at Sixth and I Streets, NW, in 1908, Steven Gatti and his family acquired the building and reconfigured it for commercial use. During the twentieth century, it housed, variously, several Christian congregations, a bicycle shop, a barber shop, a dentist’s office, a delicatessen, a real estate agency and a grocery.

In 1966, when urban renewal plans called for razing the building, the Jewish Historical Society of Greater Washington sprang into action. With help from the District of Columbia, the Department of Housing and Urban Development and an Act of Congress, the Jewish Historical Society made plans to relocate the building to the northeast corner of Third and G Streets, NW. Since renovations had left the first floor too weak to be moved, the structure had to be severed horizontally, and only the second and third floors (sanctuary and balcony levels) made the journey, by flatbed truck, in December 1969.

Placed on a new first floor created in part with bricks recycled from the previous site, the old synagogue was restored and framed by a new fence. Endowed largely through the generosity of the Small family, it became the Lillian & Albert Small Jewish Museum. An outstanding example of historic preservation and adaptive re-use, it now tells the story of the Washington-area Jewish community.