Jewish Iconography Destroyed In Bella Vista Synagogue’s Residential Conversion

 

Destruction in progress | Photo: Rob Kopf

Destruction in progress | Photo: Rob Kopf

Effective immediately, the former Chevra B’nai Reuben synagogue is decidedly a little less Jewish. The two sizable Stars of David that flanked either side of the main entrance of the building, along with the Hebrew lettering that was only recently revealed beneath the Antiquarian’s Delight sign, were filed off this morning. In the matter of a morning, they’re gone.

Jordan Fetfatzes, of the Fetfatzes family that owns Bella Vista Beer Distributor and Bainbridge Street Barrel House next door to B’Nai Reuben, told Hidden City in April that “[they] never had ideas of knocking it down because of the history and culture it affords.” Having already demolished the murals on the upper floor sanctuary’s vaulted ceiling which depicted the Hebrew months and the mazalot (Zodiac signs)—they rejected multiple Hidden City requests to photograph the murals before they were demolished—they’ve now removed an even more visible part of the building’s history and culture.

Even filed off, it's still a Star of David—until it's replaced by something | Photo: Fran Melmed

Even filed off, it’s still a Star of David—until it’s replaced by something | Photo: Fran Melmed

When reached by phone this afternoon, Fetfatzes told Hidden City, “I’m not sure what’s going on there, actually. You’ll have to talk to my dad, as this is more his project—and his money,” he said, laughing at the second part. “Yeah it sucks, but there’s a reason for everything.”

Attempts to reach Fetfatzes’ father to do that failed. Finbarr O’Kane, whose O’Kane Construction is one of the contractors on the residential conversion, said that he thought the removal of the iconography was happening in advance of new signs for the apartments.

A menorah remains at the top of the arch above the door, but it’s unclear if that too will be buffed.

Chevra B’Nai Reuben opened in 1905 as Philadelphia’s first Hasidic Jewish congregation. They vacated the building in 1956, in the midst of a postwar wave of congregations leaving the city for the suburbs. For the past several years, the building had been home to the Antiquarian’s Delight, a mishmash mall of vendors selling antiques, collectibles, and in later years, handmade clothes from fashion designers.

While it’s unclear what will take the place of the filed-off Jewish icons, the Fetfatzes hope to have a certificate of occupancy by the end of the summer. The former synagogue will be home to 12 high end apartments.

The former B’Nai Reuben synagogue's iconography, before its destruction | Photo: Bradley Maule, April 2014

The former B’Nai Reuben synagogue’s iconography, before its destruction | Photo: Bradley Maule, April 2014

About the author

Bradley Maule is co-editor of the Hidden City Daily and the creator of Philly Skyline. He's a native of Tyrone, Pennsylvania, and he's hung his hat in Shippensburg, Germantown, G-Ho, Fishtown, Portland OR, Brewerytown, and now Mt. Airy. He just can't get into Twitter, but he's way into Instagram @mauleofamerica.



23 Comments


  1. Crosses usually get removed in residential conversions of Churches. What’s the big deal? I think it’s important to remove religious iconography from buildings once they serve a completely different purpose. I wouldn’t want to live in an apartment building adorned with any religious symbols.

    Denying the opportunity to photograph the murals is pretty weak though.

  2. My great-grandfather was a founding member of that synagogue. Very sad to read about this destruction. The lettering that was effaced gave the Hebrew year the building was constructed, significant historical information if nothing else. Don’t you think the occupants of the new apartments might have enjoyed a historical detail like that?

  3. THIS BUILDING HAS NOT BEEN USED AS A SYNAGOGUE SINCE THE 1950 ‘S . IT WAS A CAR PARTS WHAREHOUSE THEN WAS VACANT FOR MANY YEARS AND BECAME AN ANTIQUE MALL.

    • … and yet, the ornamentation on the building had remained intact and not deliberately destroyed, until now.

  4. From the cheap vynil replacement windows, changing window patterns, to bland stucco over brick, and now THIS.

  5. Geoff Kees Thompson

    I think what bothers me so much about the removal of the synagogue’s imagery is that it renders the building just a boring roof and structure. It stripped the culture and history off the façade. This is way different than a cross removal. The developer literally had to deface the building to remove the Hebrew lettering and Star of David. These symbols were never a problem for the antiques mart that was once housed here. In fact it was a way to landmark the building. The developer didn’t think this one through… we now have a vanilla building erased of it’s visual interest that still show the eraser marks on the pages that have been rubbed out. Dumb.

  6. That is so wrong. They are not developers, they are destroyers.

  7. Does anyone know if there are any images of the interior murals? That seems like the greater loss to me and I’d really love to see them.

    • Indeed- does anyone have photographs? I did not have a camera with me my one time inside the former sanctuary, and the Fatfetzes denied my requests to document them when they purchased the building.

  8. I walked past this morning and they’re preparing to to stucco over the brick infilled windows. Every time I go past this building gets a little more bland, it’s a shame.

    • The stucco over the brick is far more offensive than removal of religious iconography. That’s really a terrible shame.

  9. They could have been covered over to preserve them instead if being destroyed.

  10. The Developer definitely thought this through, he intentionally wanted to erase the Jewish History of this Building,He would not even let the interior murals be photographed before he had them destroyed, Antisemitism comes to mind,why else would this be done,the area has a large jewish population,I doubt that this would have made the building less desirable

  11. It is sad. This is going on more than we think as people want to cover up any sign of “religious history” or maybe any other type of culture or history that a building may carry as it is transferred over into another use. It is strange how condemnatory those is cleaning up and hidding the religious underpinnings of this nation were when the Afgan Taliban leaders destroyed and tore down the Largest Buddhist Statues in the world — dating from 3rd Century CE but the builders of this new conversion project of an old synagogue are in the same league! Even back in the times when Muslim Peoples were conquering other religions and peoples in religious wars they often only covered over the paintings and murals –especially if they were very beautiful– rather than destroy them. They had a greater sensitivity then we possess in our so called “openly secular and tolerant society.”
    I personally believe historical (religious) markings left on a building would make that new residence more attractive to a renter or purchaser. I am of a different faith than the Jewish Faith but I would consider living in a converted property with the Jewish markings remaining a plus and someting I would proudly point out to any visitor.

  12. Michele Frentrop

    This building is a work of art, built in the baroque style with fantastic onion domes, an inviting
    entranceway, magnificent window carvings and arresting religious iconography.

    Great art like this is something to be revered and kept intact for it’s historical beauty and religious importance!

  13. Removing the murals and the symbols is obviously a really bad thing to do. To me it’s also stupid from a developer point of view. Leaving the Jewish iconography would have given the building cachet and a unique, identifying feature.

    • The owners of this property as mentioned in the article are the Fetfatzes who, as was also mentioned, are the owners of the Bella Vista Beer Distributor, Inc. They have a wonderful website at: bellavistabeverage.com which allows for comment. Perhaps you would like to make your comment known to them or ask a question about the project. Family business members emails are also listed on site.

  14. Shani Ferguson

    What a stupid, stupid thing to do. I’ve spent my last dollar at any Fetfatzes business.

  15. This is so upsetting. What a horrible job that they are doing on this project.

  16. This typically happens to Christian iconography when a church is deconsecrated. I think it’s done so that the religious symbols aren’t relegated to kitsch on a secular space no longer a place of worship. What I find more interesting is that the owner refused to allow anyone to photograph the murals. I can’t find pictures of them anywhere online. It seems like he didn’t want preservationists knowing what he had and what he was removing.

  17. Rarely is any developer sensitive enough to care at all about defacing religious symbolism – we live in an increasingly secular age. But this was simply unnecessary. They could have easily (and cheaply) been covered. The whole point of the ornamental cartouches they occupied was to display the symbols.

    While I an dubious there was any anti-semitism involved here, it far more likely it represents a loathing of religious symbols. Next time you pass a synagogue or church just imagine what it would look like stripped of the intended meaning of its adornment.

  18. Thanks so much for your article. Now I know what was there and I can tell my grandchildren…left to oral history.

  19. L. E. Mosk-Vander

    ‘Just curious what is the cultural heritage of the Fetfatz family?

    I always admired this building.

    I have seen stores that sell old glass doorknobs, reclaimed brick, wooden frames and tile. Could these cultural ornaments and architectural details have been sold and recycled in a new synagogue, or preserved in a museum??

    I ask the same question about the Community Center near the Cobbs Creek Parkway and Market Street, on Ludlow.

    LM

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