The refurbishment of Reservoir Hill is apparent along Eutaw Place, Callow Avenue and Mount Royal Terrace. Stately 1890s homes for prosperous merchants, physicians and attorneys suffered the ravages of blight and disinvestment decades ago but are now enjoying a renaissance after years of patient renovation. The community has been a work in progress for nearly four decades. The results are impressive.
One of the neighborhood’s oldest spiritual centers, Beth Am Synagogue, at Eutaw Place and Chauncey Avenue, has embarked on its own $5 million investment. The effort will preserve and update this amazing 1922 house of worship.
It was designed by Joseph Evans Sperry, who gave Baltimore the Emerson Drug-Bromo Seltzer Tower and the old Provident Bank headquarters (Howard and Saratoga streets), among other city landmarks. Sperry was a world traveler, and members of the Beth Am Congregation observe a similarity to the Great Synagogue of Florence, and its Byzantine-Moorish design
Sperry specified that the sanctuary’s soaring and gracefully proportioned arches be fitted with the gravity-defying work of the Valencia-born Spanish tile maker and architect Rafael Guastavino and his son, Rafael Jr. The light-colored interlocking Guastavino tiles are something of a rarity in Baltimore, although they are used in the landmark Oyster Bar in New York’s Grand Central Terminal and at the Biltmore Mansion and St. Lawrence Basilica in Asheville, N.C.
“Sperry designed the acoustics to come outward, toward the congregation,” said Rabbi Daniel Cotzin Burg, who since January has been honoring a pledge not to shave his beard until the construction work is completed in September. “The sound does not project as well from the congregation outward.”
Jonathan Fishman, the congregation’s incoming president, said, “The building had not not been meaningfully improved since it was constructed.”
Because the structure had been left alone, its original architecture and interior design features remain untouched. It will be retrofitted to better suit contemporary needs.
Fishman pointed to the work of a Southway Builders construction crew who cut through the 1922 poured concrete foundation walls to create a cavity for the large new elevator and a grand interior staircase. The ground-level social hall will now accommodate new uses.
Beth Am’s sanctuary had never been air-conditioned. The effort to cool the place requires new duct work to be unobtrusively passed through the U-shaped balcony overlooking the sanctuary.
“It’s like threading a needle,” said Fishman. “It’s very hard to find pathways for the new services.”
Another congregation, Chizuk Amuno, built this structure and worshiped here until 1974. A new group, led by Dr. Louis Kaplan, the retired president of Baltimore Hebrew University, bought the structure and founded a new congregation. They named it Beth Am, Hebrew for the House of the People.
“Many of the members had an urban focus. They may have worked downtown. But it was really about maintaining a Jewish presence in our historic building,” said Rabbi Burg.
Burg, who lives facing the synagogue in one of Eutaw Place’s fine homes, says that the community has always had its strengths. “It was a terrific neighborhood based on the people who lived here,” he said.
He mentioned the neighborhood’s recent positive changes: Dorothy I. Height Elementary School that opened last year on Linden Avenue, the popular community gathering spot Dovecote Cafe, the upgraded St. Francis Center and the remaking of Whitelock Street as a verdant core of community gardens.
“Reservoir Hill is a rare, diverse neighborhood in Baltimore with a strong Jewish and African-American history,” he said.
One of the other practical considerations addresses the 18 masonry steps that worshipers have to climb to reach the synagogue’s main sanctuary. A new ground-floor entrance is going in, along with that new elevator.
And now, after 97 years, there’s a solution to what was once the bane of pallbearers carrying a heavy casket.