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If Cinderella was a Shul
The Gates of Heaven Synagogue

Madison, Wisconsin

The Gates of Heaven Synagogue about to be moved to its permenant home in James Madison Park.

Photo by David Bandell,
"The Capital Times"

There it sat all alone. The ancient-looking structure was the only building left standing as one by one all the others around it were razed on an entire city block to make way for a new bank office complex. The photo in the Wisconsin State Journal, July 21, 1971 included a caption that read “The Old Synagogue’s long years are coming to crashing end,” along with an article reporting that the synagogue would be torn down later that week.

But in the eleventh hour, the little building, which is only 22 feet by 38 feet received a stay of execution. This diminutive but significant architectural masterpiece had a fairy godmother living in Madison by the name of Lois Stoler. With an interest in historic preservation, she and her husband Norton created a campaign to save the Old Synagogue. At the time (1969-70) this was no easy task as there was no groundswell of support for either historic or sentimental reasons. Through steady campaigning, letters to politicians, organizations, and individual contributions, the Stolers were able to bring about one last miracle for the life of this exceptional building, the fourth oldest synagogue building in the United States.

But first, let’s peek at Gates Of Heaven’s past. The synagogue was built in 1863 during the height of the Civil War, by a small group of immigrants form southern Germany, specifically Moravia and Bohemia. In 1856 when there were only 10 or 12 Jewish families in Madison, the group formed Congregation Ahavath Achim. Three years later they incorporated as The Gates of Heaven or Shaare Shomaim. There were then 17 families, and the congregation never grew to more than 20 families.

According to the minutes of the 1850’s and 1860’s, the first seven pages of which are in German, the fledgling group met often to discuss and vote on dues, pew rental, seating priorities, and the formation of a choir to accompany the chazzan (cantor) they expected to have. It was voted that the chazzan should face the congregation and that they should get Dr. Wise in Cincinnati to inform the congregation as to whether this was “correct and American”. It was decided that no one should be invited to the September 6, 1863 dedication “except the following gentlemen: The Governor and State Officers, and the major clergymen of the city” as well as Dr. Wise from Cincinnati. Rabbi Falk of Milwaukee was hired for a $5.00 fee to officiate at the dedication. Prestigious for the new and tiny synagogue was that the Wisconsin Legislature held its public memorial service for Abraham Lincoln there following his assassination, on April 16, 1865.

In the 1870’s the United States was hit with an economic recession. According to historian Jonathan

Gates of Heaven Synagogye photo by Sherry Zander

Pollack, Madison in that era didn’t have strong railroad connections or large industry, the lack of which caused economic setbacks. A number of the Jews in this miniscule congregation left town for more opportunity elsewhere.

After 16 years of struggling financially to keep up the synagogue the congregation decided to rent out the building. Beginning in 1879, the first tenants were the Unitarian Society, of which Frank Lloyd Wright’s father was a member. As the years passed the building housed various churches, the Women’s Christian Temperance Union, a funeral home, a beauty shop, a tearoom, congressional campaign headquarters, and finally,
a veterinary office.

The few surviving congregants had sold the building in1916. Built originally for $4,000, it sold for just $7,000 nearly 60 years later. In 1922, the last remaining member, Dr. Julius Mack offered the Torah to a newer Orthodox congregation comprised of Eastern European and Russian immigrants in Madison’s Greenbush area. They turned it down saying it wasn’t kosher and must be buried. The Gates of Heaven Torah is buried in the Jewish cemetery in a section labeled as “buried books”.

Architecturally it has an excellent pedigree. The congregation hired architect August Kutzbock who had designed the second state capitol and substantial homes for several affluent citizens. The structure is perfectly symmetrical transversely and longitudinally inside and out. Its exterior style has been described in various ways. Lois Stoler referred to it as a “fine example of the Victorian interpretation of the Spanish missions of the southwestern part of the United States.” Ada Louise Huxtable, an architectural writer for the New York Times wrote that Gates of Heaven was a “fashionable mid-century German style called Rundbogstil also known as Lombard Romanesque in New York,” further writing that it is “Remote Italianate”. I have also heard it called German Romanesque. Nevertheless, the ornate sandstone and brick building is unique in appearance. It even has a rear apse which cleverly housed the Torah.

The original ceiling was painted sky blue with gold stars, emulating the Gates of Heaven theme. A cartouche design was painted in the center where the chandelier hangs. Faux marble surfaces also add to the interior elegance. There is a very small upper gallery which can be reached by a wooden staircase.

Back to the damsel in distress, Gates of Heaven. Jonathan Pollack says he is amazed the building was still standing at all in 1970 given the city’s previous disinterest. One last time Fiore Coal and Oil Company, who owned the property at 214 West Washington Avenue, halted the wrecking ball. By 1971, from a grassroots effort by the Stolers, individual donations of money and volunteer labor enabled this group to have the synagogue moved.

July 17, 1971 moving day arrived. The petite, yet grand old building was gingerly set upon 96 aircraft tires and three dollies. It creaked and groaned its way across downtown Madison. Slowly – very slowly it advanced up West Washington Avenue toward the State Capitol on the square, ducking wires and poles along the way. Hundreds of onlookers watched its progress while Madison police provided a safety escort. Upon its arrival at its scenic new home in James Madison Park, a crowd of 200 cheered. One of the workers from the moving crew removed a bottle of champagne he’d tucked away in the building’s underbelly and the movers celebrated their success. The one-mile trip took seven hours.

It took three more years of fundraising (including fundraisers by the local Taco Grande and Burger King) and hard work in addition to a Historic Preservation Grant to finally match the princess with her glass slipper.

Today the Gates of Heaven synagogue is exceptionally well-sited on a slightly raised piece of ground right on the shores of Lake Mendota. This wonderfully restored showplace is owned by the City of Madison and is rented out for various occasions and meetings. Most surprising is that Gates of Heaven is used as a synagogue on High Holy Days when a group rents the shul from the Parks Department and conducts services. Jonathan Pollack says the style of service is somewhat Reconstructionist and New Age. He says the house is packed. Internationally known jazz musician Ben Sidran, a Madison resident, plays at services.

Even better, Gates of Heaven Synagogue is on the National Register of Historic Places, ensuring that it will never be treated like Cinderella again.

Sources for this article include: Wisconsin State Journal, The Capitol Times, The Jewish Post and Opinion, Wisconsin State Historical Society, Gates of Heaven Minutes 1856-1922, interview with Jonathan Pollack, PhD, American Jewish Landmarks by Postal and Koppman, brochure by Lois Stoler.

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