JULY 5, 2018, BOSTON – In the more than three decades since the Vilna Shul was rescued as an abandoned, condemned building in what was once an immigrant neighborhood teeming with Jewish life, it has been slowly transformed into a vibrant Jewish community center. Built in 1919 for Lithuanian immigrants, it attracts thousands of people for its cultural programs as well as tourists eager to see a remaining piece of Boston’s immigrant history on Beacon Hill.
Now, a $500,000 historic preservation grant from the City of Boston will allow leaders at the Vilna Shul, Boston’s Center for Jewish Culture, to realize their longtime dream to make the historic building accessible to all and to restore previously hidden murals painted decades ago.
Funding from the Community Preservation Act for the ambitious project was approved by a unanimous vote of the City Council June 21 on the recommendation of Mayor Marty Walsh.
With this award, the Vilna has raised more than $3.5 million of the $4 million needed for its renovation project, which will begin this fall, according to Barnet Kessel, the Vilna’s executive director.
The first phase of the project will make the multi-story building fully accessible for those with disabilities and the elderly and upgrade its HVAC systems.
“The improvements in regulating air quality will pave the way to restore noteworthy murals that were later covered over,” said Kessel. The Vilna is the only Jewish institution in the United States with three layers of unique Jewish-themed folk art murals painted on top of one another. Conservationists have uncovered small sections of the wall and ceiling murals in the second floor sanctuary.
Christine Poff, Boston’s Community Preservation Director, said the city was thrilled to support the Vilna because it holds a unique place in Boston’s history and architecture.
“There is no other historic Jewish building like it that still remains – and for the programming they provide,” she said.
Poff noted that thousands of school children visit the building that offers “a glimpse into a time when immigrants, many of whom were Jewish, lived on Beacon Hill and in the West End.”
She compared it to Ellis Island and the Tenement Museum in New York City as noteworthy landmarks of the country’s immigrant history.
The restoration is important to the history of immigration in Boston, according to City Councilor Josh Zakim, who represents Beacon Hill. “It tells a story through its walls, artifacts, and location,” said Zakim, who is Jewish.
“It’s a remarkable thing that [the city] was willing to give this grant,” said Stanley Moise Smith, a Salem resident and member emeritus of the Vilna board of directors. Preserving historic sites takes money, he noted.
Nestled on to the north slope of Beacon Hill, the Vilna began as Congregation Anshei Vilner, a synagogue founded by Jews from Vilnius, now the capital of Lithuania, and home to over 100,000 Jews prior to World War II.
The building was designed by Max Kalman, Boston’s only Jewish architect at the time, and young men in the community helped with construction.
Decades later, as Jews moved away from the area, the building was eventually abandoned and structurally condemned in the mid-1980s. In 1995, a nonprofit formed to reclaim the Vilna Shul was allowed to purchase the building and land.
Today, as it prepares to celebrate its 100th anniversary in 2019, it is the last of the area’s 40 synagogues that remain from the period.
Smith’s appreciation of the Vilna Shul goes back more than 40 years when, as the longtime director of Historic Boston, he led a feasibility study to preserve the building’s interior. “There was a group that wanted to tear down the building to build a parking lot,” he recalled.
“The building is a strong statement that has a great deal of artistic value and reflects Jewish heritage and the Orthodox Jewish standards of its founders,” he told the Journal.
“Today, the Vilna Shul attracts some 10,000 visitors annually, including tourists, school groups, and thousands who participate in its Jewish programs,” Kessel said.
Author’s note: Some of the material in this article was first reported by JTA.org.