As members of the oldest Jewish congregation in Los Angeles gathered Friday evening to observe the start of Yom Kippur, the holy day of atonement, they were invited one last time to admire the Hollywood-influenced murals and other appointments of the aging Wilshire Boulevard Temple.
Early next week, workers will begin a floor-to-dome restoration of the 1929 Byzantine auditorium that is expected to last two years. The work is part of an ambitious campaign by the Reform congregation to draw a new generation of worshipers to the Koreatown synagogue.
In his Rosh Hashana sermon last month, Senior Rabbi Steven Z. Leder predicted that the resulting complex would represent “the most remarkable center of Jewish life in the country.” Leder, 51, envisions that it will serve as a magnet for young Jews who have migrated to the Wilshire Corridor, downtown, Silver Lake and Los Feliz, reversing to some extent the exodus from the eastern part of the city of decades ago.
Once intimately tied to the Hollywood film industry, the 1,850-seat sanctuary at Wilshire and South Hobart boulevards has fallen into disrepair. Windows are cracked and bowed. Decades of accumulated dirt and grime have dimmed the once golden trim and darkened the walls, and carpets are torn and dingy.
The $175-million renovation and redevelopment project will include a new kindergarten-through-sixth-grade day school, a parking structure and a social services facility that will provide food, clothing, counseling and basic medical and legal aid services to area residents. A nursery school will continue to operate at the site.
Congregation member Fred Sands said he was pleased that temple leaders chose to invest in the nearly four-acre property rather than pack up. The temple’s historical flourishes include a 4,100-pipe Kimball organ and black-and-gold Italian marble.
“There were offers from Korean groups to pay a lot of money,” said Sands, a real estate and financial services executive. “It will be sad it won’t be used for a few years, but [once completed] it will be used by a lot more people.”
The congregation’s Los Angeles roots run deep.
Its first synagogue was built downtown in 1872. In the 1920s, Rabbi Edgar Magnin, regarded as the “rabbi to the stars,” envisioned a grand sanctuary farther west that would resemble a theater. Collaborating on the project were architects A.M. Edelman, known for his work on the Shrine Auditorium; Allison & Allison, known for buildings in Westwood, including Royce Hall at UCLA; and S. Tilden Norton, an honorary consultant who had also co-designed the Los Angeles Theatre.
Jewish merchants and bankers contributed toward the $1.5-million cost of the sanctuary, but movie money provided much of the synagogue’s flash and dazzle.
The 100-foot-high dome was the gift of Hollywood tycoon Irving Thalberg. The dome is inscribed with the Shema Yisrael, a declaration of monotheism. (A few years ago, after a chunk of water-damaged plaster tumbled from the domed ceiling, the temple installed a white tent to catch any other bits.)
Louis B. Mayer provided the east- and west-facing stained glass windows, while Carl Laemmle donated the eight cast-bronze chandeliers designed to resemble ancient prayer spice boxes.
Most theatrical and tradition-altering of all were the Warner murals (painted on canvas affixed around the interior walls), the gift of Harry, Jack and Abe Warner in memory of their brothers Milton and Samuel. The drawings depict Jewish history from creation to the discovery of America, portrayed as a figure holding the torch of liberty.
The images of Moses, Samson, David and Elijah were painted by Hugo Ballin, head of Warner Bros.’ art department. They marked the first extensive use of paintings in a synagogue since ancient times, said Stephen Sass, an attorney for HBO and president of the Jewish Historical Society of Southern California. Magnin decided to break with the usual interpretation of the Second Commandment as prohibiting “graven images,” particularly visual representations of the human form, in sanctuaries.
Magnin, who in the 1920s gained a large following through radio broadcasts, brought “to the congregation a kind of theatrical flair and performance inclination,” said Karen Wilson, guest curator for an upcoming exhibition on Jewish life in Los Angeles at the Autry National Center.
Over the years, the murals have turned dingy and the golden trim has tarnished. In recent months, conservators have performed surface cleaning tests to determine the original colors. Murals will be vacuumed, and additional dirt will be removed with dry sponges. Elements of gold and silver leaf within the murals will be regilded. The murals will appear brighter because of both the conservation work and improved lighting.
The temple is now a local historic-cultural monument and is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
Overseeing the restoration is architect Brenda Levin, a temple member who also headed the restorations of the Griffith Observatory and the Bradbury Building.
Magnin had been correct in predicting the movement of Jews to the Westside and the San Fernando Valley. In the 1980s and early 1990s, Wilshire Boulevard Temple lost members to Westside congregations. To counter the shift, it eventually built a $30-million campus in West Los Angeles and two summer camps and a conference center in Malibu.
“We reversed the trend very dramatically and went from 1,800 families to 2,600 families,” Leder said. Membership has settled, with about 2,450 families, but temple leaders are looking to the central and eastern parts of the city to bolster the ranks.
“When most institutions are figuring out how to manage decline,” Leder said, “we’re trying to figure out how to manage growth.”
During the 18 to 24 months of construction, regular Shabbat services will be in an auditorium across from the sanctuary. Weekly bar and bat mitzvahs will also be held there. For next year’s Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur services, the temple has rented the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion. The temple is scheduled to reopen for the High Holy Days in 2013.