San Diego's Oldest Jewish Temple Will Get Face Lift

Times Staff Writer

Eleven years after it was sawed in half and placed among beautifully preserved Victorian buildings at Heritage Park, the oldest Jewish temple in San Diego will get a much-needed face lift.

The restoration of Temple Beth Israel, for years an eyesore in the historic district in Old Town, was made possible through contributions from the community and will be finished in time for the temple's 100th anniversary in September.

But in its newest incarnation, the former temple--and later Christian church--will probably be used as a public meeting hall.

An infusion of $450,000 raised this year by members of the Jewish community and others concerned about the chipped paint and missing windows will bring the building back to life. The redwood walls will be restored to their original gray color, replacing the white plaster that had been applied in the 1930s. The stained-glass windows will be replaced with new ones resembling the originals.

A lack of funds for upkeep led to the gradual deterioration of the two-story redwood building after it was moved from 2nd Avenue and Beech Street in 1978 to save it from demolition.

The temple has been unoccupied and unused since 1978 because San Diego County, the current owner of the building, declined to start the renovation process until money was available, according to Jim Milch, a San Diego attorney who was involved in raising funds for the project.

The $280,000 restoration of the interior and exterior is being handled by Harvey Hiebel of Solteck of San Diego, a contractor who has done several restorations of historic buildings in San Diego. The remainder of the $450,000 will be used for landscaping.

The temple was donated to the county in 1978 by the current Temple Beth Israel, which bought the building from the Fraternal Spiritualist Church for $10,000.

The building was registered as a San Diego historic site in 1973 and was included in the National Register of Historic Places in 1978 before it was moved to Heritage Park.

The move saved the building, but made it ineligible for state grants for restoration. Because it was moved from its original site, the temple lost its standing as a national historic site, a requirement for state grant funding, according to Mary Ward, historian for the county Department of Parks and Recreation.

The National Register of Historic Places requires that its registered monuments remain in their original sites.

"We moved (the temple) to save it from demolition," Ward said. "Only under these circumstances do we approve (of moving a building). The temple would not (exist) if we hadn't moved it."

When Temple Beth Israel donated the building to the county, the understanding was that the county would move it to the park and finance the restoration of the exterior of the building, Milch said.

The donors of the building stipulated that it could not be used for commercial purposes, unlike other historic park buildings in the area.

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