Our Historic Building
Built in the early 19th century, Society Hill Synagogue boasts a colorful history that mirrors the development of American society, starting with cultural roots in Christian Europe and providing a refuge for groups that had seen persecution all over the world. Including, of course, the Jews.
The Spruce Street Baptist Church (1829-1910):
- Built for the Deacons and sixty congregants who separate from the First Baptist Church, founded in 1698 and located on North Second Street.
- Includes many important Philadelphians in its membership.
- Congregation moves to 50th and Spruce Streets in 1908.
Conversion of a Building (1910):
- Sold in 1910 to Congregation Beth Hamedrash Hagadol Nusach Ashkenaz, the building has been part of Jewish Philadelphia ever since.
- Originally named the Roumanian American Congregation in 1916, the synagogue becomes known as the Great Roumanian Shul (you can still see the Yiddish words above the main entrance).
- But the building falls into disrepair. Its illustrious twin cupolas are removed. Then…
Society Hill Synagogue (1967):
- A budding Conservative congregation in center city Philadelphia, led by Rabbi Ivan Caine, acquires the building.
- 1968: Restoration begins with the metal cornices, the stucco and the main entrance.
- 1970: We replace the roof and stabilize the foundation and beams in the sanctuary.
- 1971: In June, the building is entered into the National Register of Historic Places.
- 1985: James A. Oleg Kruhly, FAIA, designs an award-winning addition.
- 2007: The story continues with the planning of a historical expansion into the building next door, enabling us to add classroom and administrative facilities, and to make the social hall a truly memorable setting for the community of our members.
The History of the Building
The historic building at 418 Spruce Street, now known as Society Hill Synagogue, was erected in 1829 and entered in the National Register of Historic Places in June of 1971. Over the past 179 years the building has been home to first Christian and then Jewish congregations – all with a shared legacy of commitment to religious freedom and innovation in worship.
Originally this structure was built for and occupied by the Deacons and sixty dissenting congregants from the First Baptist Church, which was founded in 1698 on North Second Street. Spurred by the spirit of religious freedom fostered by the Founding Fathers, and harboring a powerful belief that the words of Jesus were not being preached correctly, they commissioned an aspiring architect, Thomas U. Walter, to design a place of worship for this growing Baptist community at 418 Spruce Street. The building was constructed in 1829. In 1851, Walter altered the original building on Spruce Street by adding the existing façade. Additions to the back of the building were made in 1871 and 1877.
Walter subsequently came to be known as the father of American architecture. Most notably, he designed the dome on the U.S. Capitol in the 1850s. Among his important local buildings are Founder’s Hall of Girard College, Moyamensing Prison, the Philadelphia Contributionship building, and Nicholas Biddle’s “Andalusia.”
The new congregation became the Spruce Street Baptist Church. The edifice was a church for eighty-one years and counted many important Philadelphians among its members. In 1908, the congregation moved to West Philadelphia. Two years later, in 1910, the church’s building at 418 Spruce Street was sold to Congregation Beth Hamedrash Hagadol Nusach Ashkenaz. Originally called the Roumanian American Congregation, the synagogue became known in 1916 as the Great Roumanian Shul, as attested by the Yiddish words still above the main entrance.
For many years, the synagogue served as a haven of religious freedom and community support for Eastern European, particularly Roumanian Jewish immigrants who were coping with immersion in a larger America that was not always friendly to their presence. The opportunity to worship freely was particularly dear at the Great Roumanian Synagogue whose members were among the hundreds of thousands of Eastern European Jews who fled the murderous race riots, known as pogroms, that swept through their population around the turn of the Twentieth Century, decimating Jewish communities and tearing families apart.
The synagogue continued to serve the Society Hill area until the 1950s, but as the immigrant communities of Philadelphia assimilated into mainstream American life and moved in large numbers to the suburbs, Society Hill itself began to decline and the synagogue mirrored that. By the 1960s, the once-proud building at 418 Spruce Street had fallen into disrepair.
Then came the 1960s and a move to gentrify Society Hill began. At the same time, a new cohort of Jewish families, committed to the re-growth of the neighborhood, began meeting in each other’s homes to worship. After a few years, this growing community identified a need for a spiritual home in the neighborhood. It was to be no ordinary Conservative Jewish synagogue, however. Rather, while its members agreed to follow Conservative Jewish liturgy, they chose to make significant changes from the dictates of the Conservative movement, and therefore remained unaffiliated from any branch of Judaism. In one of the most significant nods toward the expression of religious freedom, the founders of Society Hill Synagogue chose to accord women equal privileges in ritual practice—fourteen years before the Conservative movement adopted this change. In another expression of inclusiveness, the congregation chose to welcome intermarried couples and their children.
In 1967, members of the new Society Hill Synagogue purchased the historic building at 418 Spruce Street. Restoration was started in 1968 with the refurbishment of the metal cornices, stucco, and main entrance. The roof was replaced and the foundation and beams in the sanctuary were stabilized in 1970. An award-winning addition to the building, designed by James A. Oleg Kruhly, FAIA, was constructed in 1985. Although the historic building has undergone changes in stewardship and configuration, its basic mission as a haven for religious freedom and enlightened social action has remained.