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Everything Old is New Again:
Congregation Rodeph Shalom’s Restoration Journey

As mentioned in Bright Lights, Big Sanctuary (part-one of the Congregation Rodeph Shalom feature) the current home of Congregation Rodeph Shalom of Philadelphia, PA, was completed in 1929 and is listed on the Philadelphia Register of Historic Places. That meant that when, in 2004, Rodeph Shalom's leadership decided to renovate and restore their worship spaces they had seventy-five years worth of history to preserve and polish. Working with architects Martin Rosenblum, AIA, Martin Jay Rosenblum Associates, preservation architect, and Richard Winston, AIA, DLR Group Becker-Winston, lead architect, RS leadership set out to do just that: Repair and preserve the legacy of their historic sanctuary and restore it to its original 1929 appearance.

Here’s a quick reminder about Rodeph Shalom’s history and its building:

  • The congregation was established in 1795
  • Their first sanctuary was built in 1866 on the same property they inhabit today
  • In 1929 their current sanctuary was built. Retaining a look similar to the 1866 original, the new incarnation typified a Byzantine-Moorish style of architecture inspired by a synagogue in Florence, Italy. This structure has been Rodeph Shalom’s main sanctuary for the last seventy-five years.

When RS leadership began planning for their renovation and restoration projects they had to be mindful of guidelines and restrictions inherent in being designated an historic site. According to architects Rosenblum and Winston one of the considerations associated with such a designation is that “historic commissions, which hold jurisdiction over designated properties, may require the use of more expensive materials…” This does not mean, however, that restoration cannot be done. On the contrary, Rosenblum and Winston assert that “most certifications are for the building’s exterior appearance and do not impose constraints on the use of the interior religious space.” [Of course, codes and guidelines will vary by locality and also by the type or level of designation. Before beginning a restoration project the restoration team must review these guidelines.]

With both a designation as an historic place and a seventy-five year legacy at stake, it might have been difficult to know where to start. Congregation Rodeph Shalom's leaders made the decision, however, to begin the restoration project in the balcony of their main sanctuary, using this space as a “laboratory” to determine the most effective restoration techniques before commencing work on the full sanctuary space. They chose to begin there because it was the least obtrusive place to start. Once up in the balcony, the preservation specialists discovered the original carpet was still in place, albeit in less than mint condition. A sample of the carpet was taken from the balcony, cleaned and sent to a custom mill for matching. With some work, the carpet company, Brintons Carpet, was able to match and replicate the original pattern and color which was ultimately used to re-carpet the entire space.

In addition to the carpet, RS leadership strove to clean up the worn acoustic fabrics, restore the myriad decorative paintings seen throughout the sanctuary and improve the lighting. This was all worked on in tandem. First, though, a little clarification: Acoustic fabrics are in place in many buildings (and especially theatres or performance spaces) and are often sectional panels covered in felt or some other fabric and adhered to the walls. These panels lend themselves to better acoustics within the space. For example, think about what it sounds like walking through a wall-to-wall tiled space – it is a cacophony of noise and echoes, not exactly the kind of joyous sound you wish to make when congregating together to worship. Putting carpet in that same space will change the sound completely; the carpet absorbs some of the noise, reducing the echo. The same theory is put to use with these acoustic panels.

The panels, which lined the dome of the sanctuary, were, unfortunately, in poor condition. The seams between panels were opening, there was damage from water infiltration due to roof leaks and the fabric was pulling away from its frame – all this in addition to asbestos being found in certain panels.

According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), “asbestos is the name given to a number of naturally occurring, fibrous silicate minerals mined for their useful properties…Asbestos is commonly used as an acoustic insulator,” which helps to explain why it was found behind the acoustic panels in Rodeph Shalom’s sanctuary. The EPA further states that small fibers making up asbestos can become airborne when “asbestos-containing materials are damaged or disturbed. When these fibers get into the air they may be inhaled into the lungs, where they can cause significant health problems.” Because of the health risks related to asbestos, once found it must be properly removed or sealed off. Unfortunately, this can cause major delays in a restoration project and greatly inflate the budget, as it did for Rodeph Shalom. Those extra costs are necessary, though, because as Rodeph Shalom’s architects warn, once asbestos is exposed, “it must be dealt with and a certified asbestos removal professional must be consulted.” (Visit the EPA's website for more details, including legislation dictating asbestos removal.)

RS leadership found the asbestos early on in the restoration journey which allowed the architects and restoration artists to plan and re-adjust their schedule to include carefully monitored asbestos removal by a certified professional. It is important to note that while the workers were in contact with hazardous materials (such as the asbestos infested panels) they worked in containment and with constant air monitoring by an environmental services company. This is a necessary safety precaution when undertaking any restoration or renovation project. In addition, the architects were careful to point out that some of the asbestos is still “sandwiched” in the acoustic panels. They said that “because so much of the historic fabric was restorable, the team decided to re-adhere the felt backing” where they could and then repair and seal all seams. They were thus able to encapsulate the asbestos, rather than remove it. This was done because to remove the asbestos would have meant “the destruction of all the stenciled fabric in its entirety.” So while some panels were simply re-adhered, sealing in the asbestos, others were completely replaced. Panels were replaced in parts of the balcony where the “mischievous and curious might actually have been able to disturb asbestos-bearing materials.” Once the panels were ready to be put into place, the restoration technicians were meticulous in their process, even going so far as to insert adhesive bonds behind loose fabric using a hypodermic needle, thereby decreasing the likelihood of their falling or drooping in the foreseeable future.

Next up on Rodeph Shalom’s restoration journey were the decorative paintings and lighting. The vertical surfaces of the walls of the sanctuary were adorned with intricate designs on stenciled plaster. The designs were hidden, however, by seventy-five years of grime. Master craftsmen were called upon to restore the vision of the acclaimed original architects, Simon and Simon. Artists performed in-painting of missing sections (filling in the blanks) and overall cleaning. The signatures of the original artisans were found and preserved.

Once all this was accomplished, the designers chose varied lighting fixtures to compliment the newly restored art. Replacing the original broad fluorescent lights were better and more area-specific lighting choices that revealed details and colors in the painting that were never visible before. Some of these new lighting choices included sconces, ceiling mounted fixtures and fiber optics. (Revisit Bright Lights, Big Sanctuary, part one of Rodeph Shalom’s renovation and restoration story, to learn more about the area-specific lighting.)

Another challenge for the project designers was restoring the impressive dome atop Rodeph Shalom’s historic sanctuary. The restoration of the dome was undertaken for several reasons. One, the artistry decorating the dome was covered in seventy-five years of grime build-up. Second, as mentioned before, some of the fabric lining the dome was drooping – on occasion even nearing the floor of the balcony. Third, the lighting of the dome and from its laylight was insufficient and casting shadows upon the sanctuary. Finally, the strongest impetus for restoring the dome was the fact that the support structure of the dome was beginning to fail, leaving it in a rather precarious position. Clearly there was a lot of work to be done to the impressive dome. (See "in progress" photos.)

The architects describe the restoration of the dome as follows: Before work began, the decorative painting on the dome and especially the laylight was barely visible from the floor level because it was so dimly lit and only lit from above. What was visible from below was the staining of the fabric from previous roof leaks, open seams between the fabric panels and the Plexiglas replacing the laylight glass. … Access to this particular dome was a major obstacle. Because of its height (roughly sixty feet) and the fixed seating, the dome could not be reached by a cherry picker or other mobile staging device, and the entire area between the dome and the floor below was scaffolded for the duration of work in that area. Regarding the dome itself, it was the large starburst in the center of the dome that was structurally compromised. The problem was that the wires from which the starburst was hung were failing. Thus, the entire assembly…[was] at risk. The supplemental structure had to be installed without changing the design intent or casting unacceptable shadows through the laylight.

To that end, some of the specific changes to the dome included:

  • Replacing retrofitted Plexiglas panels with fluted laminated glazing
  • Removing fluorescent lighting
  • Removing, then reinstalling (while reinforcing the bonds of) stained glass portions of the dome, such as the center star
  • Reinforcing the support system for the structure of the dome (this meant installing replacement plaster ribs which were then reinforced by steel connectors)

Although the focus of Rodeph Shalom’s leaders' endeavors was on restoring what was already in place, they also had the foresight and good sense to plan for the future by making improvements to their infrastructure. Some improvements included re-covering the electrical wiring; rebuilding the “rainwater system” (rain gutters); revamping the heating system; and reconfiguring the air handling units. Architects Rosenblum and Winston said that because of the ornate wall décor, these improvements were easy to work into their redesign. The décor camouflaged wires and other structural necessities that would have otherwise been an eyesore. All of the improvements made to Congregation Rodeph Shalom’s main sanctuary were necessary to extend the building’s life for the next seventy-five years.

Special thanks to Martin Rosenblum and Susan Ryan, Martin Jay Rosenblum Associates, and Richard Winston, DLR Group, for their invaluable insight and assistance in writing this article.

For more information and photos contact Congregation Rodeph Shalom: visit www.rodephshalom.org.

Related Photos


In Progress


(Images courtesy of Robert Benson.)