Saving the Ark: Chicago’s grand synagogue Agudas Achim

Editorial Staff Magazine

Chicago’s Uptown neighborhood is tucked between the high-end shops of Michigan Avenue and the outskirts of suburban Evanston. In the early twentieth century large numbers of Austro-Hungarian Jewish immigrants settled there, until new roads and growing incomes pulled them away from the city in the years after World War II. They left behind the apartments, stores, and synagogues their parents had helped build.

In the 1920s two Uptown congregations merged and decided to build a magnificent synagogue. Chicago architect Henry Dubin (1892-1963) of Dubin and Eisenberg began work on the twenty-two-hundred-seat facility in 1922. As described by Vincent Michael, John H. Bryan Chair in His­toric Preservation at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, the building was constructed in sev­eral stages using multiple architectural styles includ­ing Romanesque entryway arches, baroque windows, and an art deco parapet. It is, Michael says, “a unique piece of architecture in Chicago.”

Inside, two curving marble staircases lead from the entrance hall to the second-floor grand foyer, which opens through leather doors into the huge sanctuary. Colorful rows of stained-glass windows light the space, and painted and gilded half-roundels fill the plasterwork arches adorning the cantilevered balconies with acanthus leaves, stars of David, and other foliated Judaic symbols. The massive space is anchored by its eastern wall, where an arched stained-glass window depicting the rising sun sup­plies a grand backdrop to the Aron Kodesh, or Holy Ark. Probably while on a trip to Europe to visit the Bauhaus in the mid-1920s, Dubin designed the ark and commissioned a German workshop to execute the intricate Italian glass mosaic structure.

Today the magnificent Holy Ark is the most prominent reminder of the synagogue’s grand past- one of the few things untouched by vandals during the congregation’s bleakest days in the 1980s. The synagogue had a revival of sorts in the mid-1990s-a new rabbi was brought on, and a new congregation was formed from the neighborhood’s burgeoning population of Russian Jews. Efforts were made to renovate the building’s first floor, and badly needed repairs were made on the roof and the HVAC systems.

   Sadly, internal dissension has now divided the congregation and shuttered the last cathedral-style synagogue in Chicago, though there is still hope for the preservation of the building. Work remains to return the plasterwork and windows to their former glory-not to mention the updating of electric and plumbing systems. All told, the remaining renovations to the synagogue should require about three to four million dollars to complete, a great deal more than the realtor’s $1.99 million asking price. (The sale price also includes the dilapidated 1940s Hebrew school next door.) But Philip Lefkowitz, the congregation’s rabbi, still hopes that the building can be saved. With pride he ticks off its manifold virtues: it is an important structure by a local Jewish architect; its details are re­markable, especially the Holy Ark; and its pitch-perfect acoustics suggest its potential-if not as a house of worship then as an event or performance space. But most of all he cites its history. “You can feel it,” he says. “All the prayers are in the walls.”

Agudas Achim North Shore Congregation, 5029 N. Kenmore Avenue, Chicago, IL. 

Katy Kiick