Department of Architecture Faculty of Economic Sciences University of Port Elizabeth
Raleigh Street Synagogue Conservation Study
ralph humphrey; mark joubert; dorelle sapere - 4 october 1981
setting the scene
On a typical sunshine summer afternoon on 11 December 1912 with the wind blowing in its customary irritating Port Elizabethan manner, an excited crowd stands breathlessly in front of their new synagogue in Raleigh Street, having just marched up Hartman Street from their temporary synagogue, carrying the Scrolls of the Law in an exuberant procession. The new synagogue is to be consecrated by the Chief Rabbi, Dr Juda Leo Landau, at 4.00 p.m.
In a memorable opening speech, Dr Landau congratulates the community by saying, “Each of you who has contributed to the raising of this sacred shrine has made a real sacrifice. You have proved yourselves worthy of your great ancestors and in your lives, you have realised a part of our ancient traditions. In a world of heresy and materialism be ever mindful of the needs of your youth”.
He further urged the community to pay special attention to the needs of the youth, saying, “Increase not only the number of worshippers but also the number of students”.
A plaque set in the front facade of the building commemorates this noteworthy occasion for the Jewish community.
“Surely this is the House of G-d and the Gates of Heaven”.
Such are the words emblazoned, in Hebrew, across the facade of the Raleigh Street synagogue.
As the oldest surviving synagogue in the Eastern Cape, the possibility of declaring it a National Monument should be considered.
In this respect, we will try to make the historic, architectural, town planning and recycling potential apparent.
The first synagogue in the Eastern Cape was built by the PE Hebrew Congregation, consisting mainly of British and German immigrants, in Western Road.
Unfortunately, this unique domed structure with distinct Eastern influence was demolished in 1957.
Impoverished Russian Jews, who arrived in Port Elizabeth at the end of the 19th century after being persecuted in their homeland, built the Raleigh Street synagogue and formed the P E Hebrew Orthodox Congregation.
The two congregations amalgamated after the destruction of the Western Road synagogue.
Later with the growth of the community, a new synagogue was built in Glendenningvale.
The synagogue served three generations of the Jewish community and has acted as a cultural and communal centre for many Jewish organisations including Zionist organisations, Bnei Zion, the Jewish Guild for young people as well as much welfare work.
In order to prevent a repeat of the Western Road catastrophe, a few members of the Jewish Congregation formed the Synagogue and Youth Foundation - an organisation who bought the building with a R10,000 bond being provided by the United Building Society.
age of the building
The land, part of the old market site on the corner of Raleigh and Edward Streets, was bought in 1908.
Work began on the building of the synagogue, which was eventually consecrated by the Chief Rabbi, Dr G.L. Landau on 11 December 1912.
Designed by Orlando Middleton it was constructed by J Kohler and Sons from funds provided by the poverty-stricken community.
From 1890 until World War I, Art Nouveau was the prevalent style in art and Art Nouveau architecture.
Natural, sinuous, graceful forms were used in the highly ornamental style that was based on organic forms.
Handcrafted articles made with great skill and care became the demand of the day.
Aiming at the suggestion of movement and growth, this style was particularly suited to light metal construction.
The Raleigh Street Synagogue is built in this style.
An arched gable, as a facade to the building, forms a languid curve, which links the flanking turrets.
This use of the typical Art Nouveau curve is echoed internally in the barrel vault, formed of seven straight segments.
The iron columns, supporting the gallery, are clad with wood and create an illusion of tremendous weightlessness. Benches, door handles and light fittings are all Art Nouveau in character. The Harbour Board building, built by the same company, is another example of this style.
The Architect, Orlando Middleton was a keen student of medieval architecture.
He trained under H.M.Townsend, ARIBA, of Peterborough, completed his studies in London. After passing his final RIBA examinations, he came to Johannesburg and worked for W.H. Stucke.
In 1898, Middleton was sent to Port Elizabeth to supervise the construction of the Mutual Arcade Building after which he was appointed resident architect for the Port Elizabeth Library.
His design for the Raleigh Street Synagogue together with his other work has been described as having been thoroughly in sympathy with the new school of architectural thought and had raised the standard of architecture in Port Elizabeth.
additions and alterations
Several alterations have been made to the original design:
sanitary additions were done by Middleton in 1918.
In July 1942, a maid’s room was added, designed by Maurice D. Berman.
The Synagogue and Youth Foundation have undertaken several repairs.
The exterior was repaired and painted, temporary roofing repairs were carried out and part of the electricity supply has been reconnected.
A secondary hall was formed in the foyer and a large walk-in strong room added.
the merits of the building
The synagogue is a delightful building. The interior, double-volume, is much enhanced by the slatted, barrel vaulted ceiling, while the secondary seating spaces are defined by the women’s gallery above. Natural light filters through the light green glass in the windowpanes that form the Star of David.
Above the arc, two symmetrically placed keyhole windows echo an Eastern feel to the building.
Externally, the building flanked by two towers, is seen behind an arched entrance gate.
The pillars of the building are decorated with an elegant plant-like design that blossoms into the Star of David.
The total picture of the synagogue is of an elegant, graceful and highly striking piece of architecture with admirably sensitive detailing.
town planning merit
The synagogue today stands on a site that used to be part of the Fingo location, their chapel stood on the corner of Edward Street and Campbell Street. When the area was incorporated into the city, the chapel was bought by the NG Kerk and a bell-tower added. Across the street stands the Forrester’s Hall bought by the Jewish community to use as a Hebrew school, which today is the church of the Assembly of God.
During the period when the hill was open country, the synagogue site was used for the morning market for a while.
The area in which the synagogue is sited is characterised by a large number of churches and institutional halls such as the Freemasons’ Hall.
Very little high-rise development has occurred and buildings have retained their single or double storey character.
The scale has remained sensitive and domestic.
The synagogue adds very much to the richness of this institutional area and its scale is sensitively in keeping with its surroundings.
The building is unoccupied at present and thus forms a prime target for vandals.
Paint has been splashed on the wooden floors and lectern and the strong room door jammed.
The shell of the building is structurally sound but a lot of attention needs to be given to the appearance and services :
The exterior cement plaster has chipped off the brick walls in places.
The entire building is in need of a coat of paint.
Further roof repairs need to be done to the galvanised, corrugated iron sheeting.
Care must be given to the woodwork especially the ceilings where damp has caused the paint to flake.
The eectrical wiring in the synagogue itself needs attention.
Toilet facilities are minimal.
Although the building is not in use at present, it has been offered to both the Scouts and to Civil Defence. The Club Galil who was permitted the use of the upstairs hall, is no longer active. The downstairs foyer was adapted for use by the Students Jewish Association of U P E, but they too, no longer require this facility.
prerequisites for recycling:
The Synagogue and Youth Foundation is the legal owner of the building and any possible re-use must be in accordance with its objectives, which are as follows:
To preserve the historical and religious character of the building for generations to come
To allow alterations to portions not forming the synagogue proper, providing that the character is not altered
To make the premises available to selected organisations with serious cultural and religious goals and who are in sympathy with the Foundation’s objectives
To use the limited funds primarily for preservation, thereafter for other objectives
To continue with the collecting and safekeeping of records and information relating to a11 Eastern Cape Jewish communities.
Several alternative uses have been suggested:
The Foundation wishes to create a Jewish museum with a portrait gallery and memorabilia for the whole of the Eastern Cape.
Temporary partitions, which would not destroy the character of the synagogue, could create two more halls. One hall would be at the back of the synagogue, the other in the portion of the ladies’ gallery immediately above.
The raked seating could form an auditorium for lecture purposes.
The possibility of a shul or Hebrew school, is negated by the existence of the excellent Theodor Herzl in Walmer.
The synagogue could be used during major Jewish festivals when the size of the congregation increases dramatically.
However, it is customary for orthodox Jews to walk to the synagogue on the Sabbath and few of the Jewish community live in the Raleigh Street area.
The Synagogue and Youth Foundation has no objection to the use of the synagogue by a non-Jewish civic organization, if the character of the building is not altered.
The Foundation would encourage the development of the land adjacent to the synagogue into a public park with children’s playground.
It is the proposal of the research group that the synagogue be included in the Donkin Heritage Trail as an optional extension route.
A further trail could be devised, illustrating various styles in building - the synagogue is a fine example of Art Nouveau.
The building itself should house a variety of activities to generate interest and attract people.
The back section of the main hall could be used as the Jewish museum with displays carefully mounted on wooden cabinets, sensitively designed to match the existing woodwork.
Various other religious groups could display in the downstairs foyer.
Above, the hall could be converted into a specialist school for the deaf and dumb in Port Elizabeth - a facility that is sadly lacking.
Although it would conflict with the objectives of the Foundation, the possible use of the synagogue as an interdenominational church would be recommendable.
Regardless of its use, the absolute necessity for facilities for an on site caretaker should be emphasised.
The synagogue is the oldest surviving one in the Eastern Cape and adds greatly to the institutional character of its area. Furthermore, it epitomises an architectural style in which few buildings were designed in South Africa.
Surely, these factors make it worthy of preservation for future generations?