Development

Old Synagogue on North Broad at Center of New Construction Plan

January 21, 2020 | by Stacia Friedman

Mikveh Israel Synagogue and Dropsie College at Broad and York Streets. | Photo: Michael Bixler

Real estate developers in Philadelphia tend to avoid buildings with historic designations. They come with a laundry list of “do’s and don’ts” that add expense and, often, prolonged aggravation. This is why investors panning for gold on North Broad Street initially overlooked the old Mikveh Israel Synagogue and Dropsie College at Broad and York Streets. That is, until development firm Brit Emet, LLC did the math. Located three blocks north of Temple University’s main campus, three blocks south of SEPTA’s North Broad Street Station, and an easy commute to Temple’s Health Sciences campus, the neoclassical complex was ripe for reactivation. With the spectacular renovation of the MET and plans for a new Marriott Courtyard at Broad and Erie, every inch of real estate in between is getting hot. 

In 2015, Brit Emet, LLC bought the entire lot for $825,000. The firm hired architect Richard Villa of Ambit Architecture to transform the former Jewish college into a mixed-use complex. The new owners have no interest in removing the Beaux Arts college building which currently functions as Forget Me Knot Youth Services, a shelter for disadvantaged youth. Instead, it plans to build new residential buildings directly in front of the former college. 

Plans for York Place include two new five-story apartment buildings built in front of former Dropsie College. | Rendering courtesy of Ambit Architecture

In October 2018, Villa’s first submission for a single nine-story building with 120 apartments was rejected by the Philadelphia Historical Commission. It suggested a more moderate approach. Villa’s second submission in March 2019 to construct two new five-story buildings, containing 56 one-bedroom apartments, was approved. The new structure, to be called York Place, will permit the original college building to be seen from Broad Street and preserve a smaller version of the existing garden courtyard. 

When it was built in the early 1900s, Mikveh Israel Synagogue and Dropsie College reflected the aspirations of the neighborhood’s affluent German-Jewish community. New York architects Pilcher and Tachau designed Mikveh Israel in limestone in the Greek Revival style with stately ionic columns, mammoth arched bronze doors, 40-foot ceilings, and marble floors. This was not the congregation’s first synagogue. It was, however, the most opulent.

In 1782, acclaimed Philadelphia architect and champion of Greek Revival William Strickland designed an elegant white stone synagogue for the congregation on Cherry Street. In 1860, it moved to an even grander structure on 7th Street, north of Arch Street. By the dawn of the 20th century, Jewish industrialists wanted to be closer to their North Philadelphia factories. While elite gentile society gravitated to Rittenhouse Square, wealthy German Jews migrated up Broad Street. This explains the choice of Broad and York Streets for this majestic synagogue and college.

Mikveh Israel Synagogue was last used by Official Unlimited, an athletic sportswear retailer. | Photo: Peter Woodall

By the 1960s, factories were closing and North Philly was falling into economic hard times. Jewish residents fled to the burbs and, in 1976, Mikveh Israel relocated to its current location on Independence Mall. That is where architecture firm Harbeson, Hough, Livingston & Larson gave Philadelphia’s oldest Jewish congregation a decidedly contemporary style. Modernist master Louis Kahn famously submitted 10 proposals to the congregation between 1962-1971, but, due to costs and other disagreements, none of his designs were realized.

Dropsie College, next to Mikveh Israel, was funded by a bequest from a congregation member, Moses Aaron Dropsie. A convert to Judaism, Dropsie was a lawyer who made his fortune investing in Philadelphia street cars. The college was designed by Philadelphia architect Abraham Levy. Its restrained limestone facade reflects the purpose of the institution. Rather than being a seminary to ordain rabbis or to train Jewish educators, the college was established as the world’s first institution to offer doctoral degrees in Judaic Studies. It was open to students without regard to “creed, color, or sex.” The majority of graduates were gentile.

According to historian Arthur Kiron, the most precious asset of Dropsie College was its library, containing thousands of manuscripts, medieval bibles, and rare books, including fragments of ancient texts dating back to the 10th century. In 1986, on the 40th anniversary of Kristallnacht, arson ravaged the library’s treasured collection. Firemen’s hoses turned irreplaceable manuscripts into mud.

Dropsie College (date unknown) | Image courtesy of the Philadelphia Historical Commission

Thanks to funding by Walter Annenberg, the remains of the library were relocated, first to Lower Merion, then to 420 Walnut Street. In 1993, it became a part of the University of Pennsylvania and is currently known as the Herbert D. Katz Center for Advanced Jewish Studies. “The majority of the manuscripts and printed volumes in our Rare Book Room came from Dropsie,” said Dr. Burche Nielson, librarian and archivist at the Katz Center, who estimates that 400 manuscripts and 7,000 books are from the original Dropsie College library.

Meanwhile, Brit Emet, LLC has not approached the Historic Commission with plans to develop the synagogue. Instead, his firm leased the property a few years ago to Official Unlimited, an online athletic sportswear retailer. Today, all that is left of Official Unlimited is a huge, red, metal sign in front of the synagogue. The next tenant was Cathedral Banquet Hall which hosted weddings and hip hop parties in the same sanctuary in which moguls had prayed for redemption. As of now, the synagogue stands empty and silent, but not for long. Once York Place is complete, no doubt with a Starbucks or Saxby’s at street level, there is no telling what will become of Mikveh Israel Synagogue. It could go the way of many Philly landmarks and morph into an upscale restaurant or fitness center. Just think. One day, you may be able to knock back craft cocktails or do pilates in front of the Torah ark.

Shai and Anat Argaman, owners of Brit Emet, could not be reached for comment by the time of this article’s publication.

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About the Author

Stacia Friedman Stacia Friedman is a Philadephia freelance writer and visual artist who tried New York and LA on for size and came home to roost. Her articles have appeared in WHYY’s Newsworks, the Inquirer, New York Times, Broad Street Review and Chestnut Hill Local. She loves the city’s architecture, history and vibrant arts scene.

6 Comments:

  1. Janice Assaraf says:

    I hope that there will be a Kosher “High End”restaurant, with both Sephardic & Ashkenazic food,in the former Mikveh Israel Synagogue.Another idea could be to gave the former Mikveh Israel Building become a Jewish Art Center, with an Art Studio, art classes& Art Galleries, with a gift shop, of course,that sells Judaica! (A percentage of the profits going to the present day Congregation Mikveh Israel)What do you think
    of my idea Eli Gabay Esq., the present Parnas aka President of Congregation Mikveh Israel!!!
    Sincerely,
    Janice Simons Assaraf
    Member of Congregation Mikveh Israel, The Synagogue of the American
    Revolution& the Spanish & Portuguese Jews.

  2. Please note that Gratz College also had a building on that campus. Gratz is the oldest non-denominational college in the US and will celebrate its 125 anniv this Spring. It was also the first Jewish coed college in the United States. Today, among its many programs, Gratz is home to the largest online PhD program in Holocaust and Genocide in the country.
    Rabbi Lance J. Sussman, PhD
    Chair
    Board of Governors
    Gratz College

  3. Janes says:

    If the historians stay away and don’t screw up the zoning approvals, this project has a chance to rejuvenate the neighborhood. If the historians screw it up, investment will leave the neighborhood and the buildings left to deterroriating to a demolition proceeding.

  4. miriam rodriguez says:

    very interesting

  5. Also Davis says:

    It will not be that long before the building can be returned to use as a synagogue. It should remain untouched until then, or only used in a harmonious way until then, such as for acoustic concerts and speakers. Or it could be moved to a more useful site for ritual purposes or use as a concert hall.

  6. Cyndi Lunsford says:

    I used to work at the National Museum of American Jewish History that was founded by the Mikveh Israel Synegog and all the while figured that the Synegog was funding the museum that wasn’t that interesting. Somehow, the museum garnered folks who thought that the museum would be an attraction to folks who would be attractive to others. I tried when I was working there to tell the curators that folks don’t care about the stories that they were trying to tell. They should talk about the Jewish reaction to the civil rights movement that they were solidly involved with which the Black community was appreciative about. The Jewish community needs to merge with other marginalized organizations that they have been affiliated with in order to get other communities to organize with them. Come on Jews…help where you can!

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