BOSTON – Heady anticipation – and clouds of dust – are in the air at the Vilna Shul.
One hundred years ago, nearly to the week, on Dec. 11, 1919, Lithuanian Jewish immigrants laid the cornerstone for Congregation Anshei Vilner at 18 Phillips Street, on the north slope of Beacon Hill. Designed by Max Kalman, at the time the only professional Jewish architect in Boston, the Vilna stood proudly among some 40 other shuls that once dotted the city’s West End.
Now, a century later, the last remaining immigrant-era synagogue in the city’s downtown is again a construction site, this time nearing the end of an unlikely, transformative renovation that paves the way for its future.
By the mid 1980s, long after Jews left the neighborhood, the once-thriving congregation ceased holding services. In 1994, facing the prospect of being demolished, the building was acquired by a nonprofit determined to preserve the historic shul.
Now known as the Vilna Shul/Boston’s Center for Jewish Culture, it operates as a cultural center and attracts some 10,000 annual visitors for programs and school visits, and is a go-to tourist destination.
Construction on the $4 million project began in October 2018, after the Vilna garnered $500,000 in competitive funds under the City’s Community Preservation Act. The building is on target to reopen with full programming at the beginning of January.
Key to this first phase of the renovation is making the building accessible and updating wiring and heating, installing safety and security systems and bringing in air conditioning – improvements that are expected to increase the number of visitors and allow more summertime use of the building.
The second phase, which is expected to begin around the end of next year, will complete the eagerly awaited restoration of the Vilna’s original, historically significant murals that were painted over by subsequent generations. Led by painting conservator Gianfranco Pocobene, head of art conservation at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, the mural restoration will be funded by a $1.5 million campaign.
On a recent weekday, the Jewish Journal met up with Barnet Kessel, the organization’s executive director, for a behind-the-scenes look at the nearly complete renovation.
Visitors will now enter the Vilna from an accessible entrance on the left side of the building that leads to a new welcome center. An elevator goes up to the second floor sanctuary.
The traditional front entrance, beneath a magnificent stained glass Star of David, will be used for special occasions.
The first floor social hall and chapel has been opened up into an expansive community room and will feature a reimagined public exhibit that will highlight the Vilna’s history and the history of Boston’s Jews. The historic kitchen is being recreated and will include the original sink, its early gas stove and other artifacts.
Above the loud buzz of electric saws, Kessel could hardly contain his wide swing of emotions.
“It’s exciting. It’s liberating. It’s scary. It’s about time,” Kessel said. “It’s a dream of almost 30 years to modernize … and still embrace the historic nature of the building.”
Off to the side of the community room is a new built-out area that includes office space and a small classroom. Before the renovation, Kessel revealed, the space, which was beneath the second-floor women’s balcony, had been inaccessible, hidden behind a brick wall and filled with a massive pile of soil that was carted away during construction.
Recapturing that 1,500-square-foot space was a significant development, according to Lynne Spencer, an architectural preservationist who has been involved in various roles with the Vilna going back some 30 years.
The Vilna “is a vestige of what was a robust community of immigrants,” in the city’s West End neighborhood that was “largely obliterated by urban renewal,” said Spencer, a principal with Spencer, Sullivan and Vogt, the architectural firm overseeing the renovation. The Vilna is now a place to explore “what it means to be an American and to become an American,” issues that resonate today, she said.
Recovering a window into the past
The HVAC updates extend to the second-floor sanctuary with its handsome hand-carved wooden Torah ark dominating the front of the room.
The wooden pews, that date back to the 1840s, are being restored. A century ago, they were hauled over to the new Vilna from what was the nearby Twelfth Baptist Church. In Anshe Vilner’s early years, after growing too large to hold services in people’s homes, the congregation bought the historic 19th-century African American house of worship and used it as their first religious home until building the Vilna.
To history buffs and scholars of Jewish art, this first phase of the renovation is the tantalizing entry point to the full restoration of the Vilna’s painted-over original murals, a rare surviving example of Lithuanian-Jewish liturgical and folk art in the U.S. that recalls the synagogues of the founders’ homeland.
A decade ago, the triple layer of paint was removed from the east wall of women’s balcony, revealing a Holy Land mural depicting the Cave of Machpaleh and the tomb of Rachel. The next phase of the exacting restoration will remove all three later layers of paint – two layers with decorative motifs and the last monochromatic, beige coating. One section of all three layers will be preserved so visitors can see the evolution.
Vilna visitors and regulars will have the unusual treat of seeing see the restoration as it unfolds, Kessel explained.
Some days, Kessel admitted, he imagines the voices of the Vilna’s founders scrutinizing the changes at what was once their Orthodox shul. One crotchety man may kvetch that the old ways were better.
“Then, I hear all these other voices … that say, ‘In the old days, this place would be gone, like the others,’” he imagines.
“It’s great that it’s alive and that there’s life back in the Vilna.”