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History of the Building

Photo by James Bogue

History of the Center for Performing and Visual Arts

692 Joseph Avenue — The Outside

692 Joseph Street was built in 1928; the building features decorative stone quoining and other decorative cast stone classical details. It’s listing on the National Register of Historic Places commemorates its high degree of integrity in terms of location, design, setting, workmanship, feeling and association. The building also retains much of its historic features and a clear sense of its function as a house of worship. 

Sited facing Joseph Avenue (west), the building is of American bond brick with caststone accents and appears as a five-bay-wide, three-story building, when in reality it is only two stories. The fenestration and height of the end bay towers give the illusion of height, as these house inner staircases to access a balcony in the upper level. A series of 15 brick steps also adds to the appearance of height, as these steps lead to the entrance. Basically, the west elevation consists of a recessed entrance with a triangular parapet and flat roofed portico with stone cornice and four Ionic order columns. The three entrances consist of double wood paneled doors with raised circle decoration and a glass transom with a floral design or a Star of David in the center. Doors are set into brick arch surrounds and separated by Ionic order stone pilasters. Ghost lettering indicates where the name “Congregation B’Nai Israel” used to adorn the building. The parapet has a large semi-ocular window (now boarded) flanked by two panels with scroll and branch reliefs and a stone coping with the center piece missing. Two stone urns (one on each side) are barely visible on the roofline where the parapet and end bay stairwells intersect. The end bays have cast-stone quoining, two inset stone panels (one plain and one with a swag) and two paired casement windows with stone sills and corbels. One window has a rounded brick lintel and transom. A header row in the brick work extends over the lower window. Paired wood paneled doors are at ground level and there is a cornerstone in each bay end, one with the date of construction in Hebrew and the other with 1928.

692 Joseph Avenue — The Inside

Photo by James Bogue

Inside, stairs allow access to the main floor lobby and balcony in the worship space. The lobby still has its marble wainscoting and two commemorative plaques between the doors. Three sets of leatherette-covered double swinging doors are on the east side of the lobby for access to the worship space. The most prominent features of the worship space are the Classical Revival style ark in the east wall and the balcony that runs along the west, north and south sides of the room. The ark has sliding panel closures that are set into a square-edged molding and flanked by two pairs of fluted pilasters topped with a plain panel block supporting a large broken pediment. Above the pediment is a trompe l’oeil painting of two columns supporting a tent against a background of blue sky and stars. In the center of the painting is a paired window with stained glass depicting the Torah. A Star of David is painted on the wall in the center part of the pediment. In front of the ark is a bimah of plain, light colored wood panels with matching rails and slats. Two long windows flank the ark and the windows have arched transoms with a Star of David and decorative panels in the upper portion.

Wood pews are arranged in two long rows with a center aisle, facing the bimah. A period chandelier hangs from the ceiling at the end of the aisle and consists of ornate metal designs in brass and enamel with glass beads. Exposed light bulbs are arranged around the edges. Behind the light is a large ceiling painting, another trompe l’oeil depiction of the heavens. The chandelier and painting are in remarkably good condition. Most of the windows along the north and south elevations are also extant and have decorative center panels, many with zodiac symbols. Since its construction in 1928, the building has served the local community as a house of worship, school and a gathering place and plans are underway to revive its function as a neighborhood gathering place.

692 Joseph Avenue — Architecture

The building is also significant in the area of architecture as an example of early twentieth century Georgian Revival design, combining the historic tradition of the early American past with ancient Jewish tradition and ritual. The immigrant community was clearly embracing their adopted country by using historic American elements of colonial style pediments, columns and other decorative features, which also expressed their patriotism for their new home. A local draftsman, Louis H. Friedman (whose name appears on the plans), is credited with the design of the building. Friedman appears to have been influenced by another local architect, Siegmund Firestone. The construction of the synagogue predates Firestone’s Jewish Young Men’s and Women’s Association Building (NR listed 1985) but shares similar design features such as prominent rounded windows, a façade divided by tall pilasters, use of paired casement windows, even fenestration and brick construction. The building was used as a synagogue until 1961 and is currently vacant, but plans are underway to rehabilitate the space as a community center. Recognizing its history and importance to the local community, the city designated the building as a local historic landmark in 2014.

In the mid twentieth century, the Joseph Avenue neighborhood changed as many residents found new homes in the suburbs and the shops and synagogues disappeared. The building at 692 Joseph Avenue is one of the few reminders of the Jewish community that settled in the area and the only one founded by Austrian immigrants, tying it to the larger wave of the southern and eastern European immigrants to the United States and Rochester. The synagogue’s location in an urban core allowed its members to walk to religious services and still reflects this by having a shallow set back, narrow lot and no parking lot.

The City of Rochester designated Congregation B’Nai Israel as a local landmark in 2014, celebrating its history and architectural significance as the most intact early twentieth century synagogue in the city.