Oldest DC Synagogue To Move Again, Twice, for 'Capitol Crossing' Project
Historic structure will anchor planned Jewish Museum expansion
As Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur spiritually uplift Jews across the globe this fall, the District of Columbia’s historic Adas Israel synagogue also will be lifted—literally.
Washington, D.C.’s oldest synagogue is slated to be repositioned not once, but twice, to clear space for the $1.3-billion Capitol Crossing project in the city’s northwestern corner. The 140-year-old synagogue in mid-October will be moved approximately 40 to 50 ft to a temporary position while an underground parking garage is built for Capitol Crossing, a three-city-block commercial and residential development that will reconnect the city grid with bridge platforms over open-cut portions of Interstate 395. After the garage is built, the synagogue, which weighs approximately 273 tons, will be moved another 1,000 ft to its final location, above the garage at the corner of Third Street and F Street Northwest.
Wolfe House & Building Movers will coordinate both moves. Mike Brovont, an estimator with the Pennsylvania-based company, said moving a structure twice isn’t typical, but his firm has done it “dozens” of times before. “It stays on the steel framework and sets on our wooden cribbing, and we make sure that there's plenty of [cribbing] there to hold it,” Brovont says. “It could stay there permanently if it needs to.”
To start the moving process, a framework of steel beams will be installed under the 25-ft by 60-ft building, including two I-beams running lengthwise and a series of crossbeams, placed four feet apart from one another. After hydraulic jacks lift the building three to four feet, remote-controlled, hydraulic-driven dollies will be installed underneath the structure, so that it can be pulled to its destination.
Brovont said the building was moved basically the same way in 1969, when the synogogue was transported to its current location, at Third and G streets, to make way for the Metropolitan Area Transit Authority headquarters.
However, over the past five decades, there have been big technological advancements in the art of moving structures, Brovont noted. For example, in 1969, “shop dollies” and bulldozers or semi-trucks were used to pull a building, jerking the structure with every start, stop and corner turned. Today, remote-controlled dollies make for a much smoother ride. “All the dollies talk together and steer around the corner without a problem,” Brovont says. “You can even back these dollies up, which was something not done previously.”
Also at that time, screw or hydraulic jacks were typically used in building moves. Today, synchronized systems “unify the lift so that jacks extend evenly,” Brovont said. This method keeps the building on a flat plane, even if one corner of the building weighs twice as much as another corner. Moving a building 20 to 30 years ago, before the advent of remote jacking systems, was much more stressful, he adds. A building’s brick joints and interior plaster were more likely to crack during a move if the building wobbled on its diagonal plane.
Further, the process is faster than it used to be, although by no means could the process be considered speedy. The synagogue’s original move took three hours to go three blocks. Not including weeks of setup and preparation work, next month’s move will take approximately 30 minutes to go 40 to 50 ft. Moving the synagogue from the temporary location one block south to its final location will take another few hours.
The synagogue will sit adjacent to the parking garage’s excavation site for almost two years while the parking garage is being constructed.
Capitol Crossing’s general contractor, Balfour Beatty Construction Co., will weatherize and protect the synagogue during this period. The windows will be braced, two air-handling units will cool the interior during the summer, and weekly maintenance will be conducted. “It’s beyond the [Capitol Crossing] property line, so it’s not impacting the excavation of the parking garage,” Bob Robidoux, director of purchasing at Balfour Beatty, says. “It would have been nice to use [the land] as storage space, but it’s not impacting construction.”
History Is Happening
Owned by the Jewish Historical Society of Greater Washington, the Adas Israel synagogue hasn’t actually housed an active congregation in more than a century. Featuring long, round-headed windows, the unassuming red-brick structure was originally built in 1876 on the corner of Sixth Street and G Street Northwest.
President Ulysses S. Grant became the first sitting U.S. president to attend a Jewish service, when he was on hand for the synagogue’s dedication ceremony one month before the nation’s centennial. Grant also donated $10—equivalent to approximately $200 in today’s dollars—to the synagogue’s building fund. According to the society, a contractor and brickworker named Joseph Williams built the original synagogue in three months for $4,800.
By 1908, the congregation, having outgrown the 4,000-sq-ft building, sold it to a local real estate developer, which leased the upstairs sanctuary to several churches over the years. Three ground-floor storefronts were used for a slew of businesses, including a barber shop, a bicycle shop and a barbecue restaurant.
The historical society purchased the building in the 1960s. Later, it was converted into a museum and function space that is occasionally used for weddings and bar and bat mitzvahs.
Moving On Up
Capitol Crossing’s developer, Property Group Partners, is not only paying an undisclosed sum to move the synagogue but also providing the land the synagogue will occupy as well as the land for a new 25,000-sq-ft museum, which will be built adjacent to the synagogue. PGP is making an undisclosed donation to the museum project, too.
Stuart Zuckerman, a Jewish Historical Society of Greater Washington board member and past president, said the organization had plans to build a more modest museum on land it owns adjacent to the synagogue’s current location. He said the deal with PGP allowed the organization to build a much larger museum. “It’s really exciting for us to be able to do that,” says Zuckerman, a real estate developer who also chairs the historical society’s building committee.
The new museum will connect to the synagogue via a glass atrium and, on the second floor, a glass bridge. Since the original synagogue is listed on the National Register of Historic Places, it can't be modified too much. In addition to exterior and interior restoration work, the historical society has overseen analysis of the sanctuary's paint.
The adjacent new building will feature three galleries, including a core exhibition that tells the story of Washington, D.C.-based Jews who have influenced the city, the nation and the world. A children’s gallery and a gallery for traveling exhibits, along with program spaces, archival storage and offices, also will be built.
The SmithGroup JJR, whose museum practice is based in D.C., is handling the museum design. Gallagher & Associates is the exhibit designer. Whiting-Turner is performing preconstruction duties, but a general contractor has not been selected. Zuckerman said he hopes to begin the 18-month construction period as soon as the synagogue is delivered in the first quarter of 2019.
In the meantime, Zuckerman isn’t too nervous about the big move. Acknowledging that it is always risky to relocate a historic structure, he said he has confidence in the engineering firm Wiss, Janney, Elstner Associates Inc., which the historical society retained to review the project team’s plans. “The way I'm dealing with my anxiety is to hire a very highfalutin' consulting engineer, to listen to them very carefully and to have them make comments. That’s the way I’m dealing with my personal anxiety,” he says.