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Indiana Landmarks rescues endangered Jewish landmark

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A historic but vacant synagogue on the near-north side of Indianapolis has been thrown a lifeline by Indiana Landmarks, which plans to renovate the building in hopes of finding a tenant.

The preservationist group paid $50,000 to rescue the temple at 3359 N. Ruckle St., near East 34th Street and Park Avenue. Most pressing on the to-do list is a roof replacement, which will be paid for with a $100,000 city grant to the Mapleton-Fall Creek Community Development Corp.

“One of the special features of the sanctuary is very detailed plasterwork,” said Mark Dollase, Indiana Landmarks’ vice president of preservation services. “And that unfortunately is being decayed and damaged by the water infiltration.”

REW Beth-el temple 15colTwo Jewish and three Christian congregations worshipped at the synagogue at different times until it was vacated about 10 years ago. (IBJ Photo)

The imposing structure tucked in a residential neighborhood has a storied past. It was designed by the local architectural firm Vonnegut Bohn and Mueller, whose work included city landmarks such as the Athenaeum and downtown L.S. Ayres building. The firm was founded by esteemed author Kurt Vonnegut’s grandfather, Bernard Vonnegut, and led by his father, Kurt Vonnegut Sr., when the Beth-El congregation built the temple in 1925.

Beth-El worshipped there until 1958, when it moved north to its present location on West 70th Street. Another Jewish congregation, B’nai Torah, occupied the building on Ruckle Street until 1968, when it too moved north, to West 64th Street and Hoover Road.

Three Christian congregations inhabited the structure at different times, until about 10 years ago. The property ultimately ended up on the Marion County tax-sale list of delinquent properties before Indiana Landmarks convinced city officials to pull it and allow the not-for-profit to buy the building.

Jewish iconography remains in the second-floor sanctuary, including an elaborate screen and chandeliers that incorporate the Star of David. The space also boasts a barrel-vaulted ceiling with plasterwork that features stylized floral Art Deco motifs.

The two-story structure totals about 15,000 square feet and could be reused as a Jewish Heritage Museum, a restaurant, a daycare facility or for a preservation-centered job-training program, said Dollase of potential uses that have been suggested.

Indiana Landmarks plans to retain ownership of the building for the rest of the year before handing the keys to a newly formed not-for-profit, Temple Heritage Center Inc., which will oversee the synagogue in its new creation.

Beth-El member and local businessman Isaiah Kuperstein, who owns the local Double 8 Foods chain, has been named president of the not-for-profit. One of his four stores is located across from the former synagogue, on Fairfield Avenue, and he’s also a director of the Mapleton-Fall Creek CDC.

“It has a tremendous significance for the Jewish community as well as the neighborhood,” he said. “This is not a building that should be destroyed; we should save it.”

Kuperstein’s group has met once with neighborhood and city officials, and will continue to have discussions with interested parties to determine the best use for the building. Two sessions open to the public are set for the spring.

In the meantime, Indiana Landmarks is accepting donations for the project.

“I think it’s a really significant building, primarily for its representation of the city’s Jewish heritage,” Dollase said. “It’s the oldest standing synagogue in the city.”
 

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  • Strong Article
    Your comment, Michael is so appropriate to what we are trying to do. This building is and has always been an integral part of the neighborhood and look forward to engaging many more people of all faiths and backgrounds to restore it to yet another great purpose.
  • 21st and Central
    The church located on 21st and Central was once occupied by Central Hebrew Congregation which later became known as Bnai Torah in 1958. Congregation Bnai Torah then moved to the Temple, or synagogue, on 34th and Ruckle and was there until 1967. It then moved again to its current place on Hoover Rd.
  • Information
    Barb - you are probably thinking of CCentral Hebrew Congregation which later became Bnai Torah that was located on 21st and Central. That building was formerly a Church and still stands. Bnai Torah then bought the synagogue on 34th and Ruckle in 1958 and was there until 1967. Our Temple is the oldest existing synagogue structure that was specifically built for that purpose.
  • 21st and Central
    Barb, are you talking about the structure on the northwest corner of 21st and Central? I had heard it was a Jewish congregation at one time, but could not find much information on it.
    • Strong article, Real need
      I enjoyed reading this article, and it highlights and important element (and potentially financially valuable opportunity) within the urban core of Indy. Great architecture is rare, and especially architecture with such strong ties to the local community. I do not live in that neighborhood, but did sometime ago and am familiar with its challenges. Strong neighborhoods build stronger communities, and that neighborhood could use a sturdy anchor. This historic facility may be a great fit! Wishing Indiana Landmarks well, and I hope to read more about its progress with this building in the future.
      • corrections
        As a young girl, I started my Jewish education at the 21st Street temple which became IHC and then B'Nai Torah. When B'Nai Torah grew, they moved to the 34th and Ruckle site which is where I was confirmed and hung with my friends for the high holy days. So, I think that the 21 st St Temple is the oldest.
        • Momentum
          Many thanks to IBJ for highlighting this community-driven initiative. More info is available in our Dropbox archive at www.templeheritagecenter.org and you can follow us on Twitter @TEMPLE-HERITAGE. We are working to position the Temple as a vibrant asset serving the greater Indianapolis community while also celebrating and highlighting the rich story arcs of both the African American and Jewish heritage of Mapleton-Fall Creek. We're working toward a July deadline to stabilize the Temple building, and will begin implementing a community outreach strategy in April to advance our push toward a viable end use. Lots of momentum! Tyson Domer, Secretary, Temple Heritage Center, Inc.

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