How to Renovate a Synagogue

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One fundamental aspect of synagogue renovations is the need to balance continuity and change. Synagogue renovations simultaneously require a connection to history and embrace contemporary needs. Revitalizing existing places of worship offers the chance to create more functional and meaningful spaces that serve multigenerational congregations. This poses unique challenges and opportunities. It can be difficult for congregations to decide what aspects of their synagogues to keep, especially because of high emotional attachment to the space or being accustomed to things working a particular way.

As synagogue design experts, Studio ST Architects helps congregations choose what to keep and what to alter. It is an opportunity to support functional improvements in daily use for contemporary users, and it is a chance to reinvigorate the spiritual experience on an individual and a communal level. Two case studies of Studio ST Architects’ recent renovations highlight the balance of respecting history and encouraging change through the following means: reinterpreting accessibility, strengthening security without compromising aesthetics and expanding opportunities for building community.

Studio ST Architects’ designs for Skokie Valley Synagogue in Skokie, IL and Ansche Chesed Synagogue in New York City are the epitome of uplifting architectural renovations that simultaneously respect historical features and practices, while implementing functional improvements which serve diverse congregations of today. With Skokie Valley Synagogue being built in 1963 and Ansche Chesed Synagogue in 1927, both synagogues previously had outdated spaces that did not operate effectively for their communities.

Accessibility remains a large issue within all existing synagogues, not only for the elderly but also for the rest of the congregation. The Skokie Valley Synagogue renovation transformed the sanctuary from a dark and formal room to an ethereal, bright and ADA accessible space for a contemporary congregation. Movable chairs replaced the fixed seats and reoriented the focus of prayer east toward Jerusalem. The new seats allow for flexibility and bring the congregation closer to the ark and bimah. The ark and reading table are connected by a raised oak platform with an ADA ramp. In Ansche Chesed Synagogue, a new elevator now allows people with mobility challenges to access five different levels of the building with dignity. A new coat room with stroller parking is located off the main entry lobby and can be accessed by a ramp. Both renovations also include new all-gender ADA bathrooms to serve the many guests that use the buildings throughout the day.

In addition to accessibility, Studio ST Architects specializes in improving synagogue security. At Ansche Chesed Synagogue, Studio ST Architects located the security office and bullet resistant doors at the main entry to add safety to the building. The entry’s steel security doors have bullet resistant glazed openings and are clad in rich wood, simultaneously acting as a safety measure and a seamless design element that respects the synagogue’s historical characteristics. With these design choices, the renovation sought to provide much-needed upgrades to accommodate contemporary needs while respecting the synagogue’s past.

Addressing functional aspects within synagogue architecture also allows the opportunity to reinterpret and improve communal spaces within the building. By introducing movable chairs and brightening Skokie Valley Synagogue’s sanctuary, it became a more pleasant space where people felt more inspired to pray together. Studio ST Architects created a large triangular skylight in the center of the room, lighting the location of the prayer leader. They installed minimal LED linear cove uplights to wash the original building’s angled roof geometry and illuminate the room with indirect light. The tan brick walls were painted with a coat of white lime wash, brightening the space while respecting its past. By relocating Ansche Chesed’s previously windowless offices to the fifth floor, the ground floor lobby area tripled, creating a bright and welcoming space that invites people to hang out. The lower lobby’s oak bleacher-style seating encourages visitors to enjoy each other’s company, while also providing an informal space for classes. Redesigning the basement level transformed the social hall into a simple yet beautiful space that can accommodate High Holiday services and events. With these modern-day upgrades, the renovation encourages moments of interaction and community, as well as chesed, or loving kindness, as a reflection of the synagogue’s namesake.

Studio ST Architects works closely with congregations of all denominations to design beautiful spaces that respect the synagogue’s history while addressing contemporary needs. By listening carefully to each congregation’s unique requirements, Studio ST Architects helped Skokie Valley Synagogue and Ansche Chesed Synagogue achieve their goal of creating contemporary religious architecture that allows congregants to experience both the communal aspects of praying together and the personal, intimate spiritual experience.

Learn more about Studio ST Architects’ expertise as synagogue architects here.

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