Beacon Communities, the Boston-based group that spearheaded the redevelopment of the former B’nai Israel Congregation site, now seeks a local historic designation for the East End synagogue.
Designed by noted architect Henry Hornbostel on North Negley Avenue, B’nai Israel — the first congregation that opened in Pittsburgh’s East End — served Jews predominantly from East Liberty for the better part of the 20th century. The congregation was founded in 1904 and opened its Garfield synagogue 20 years later.
The birth of the congregation is inextricably linked to the opening of Bigelow Boulevard around 1901, said Eric Lidji, director of the Rauh Jewish Archives at the Sen. John Heinz History Center. Suddenly, workers and business owners downtown were connected to Oakland, East Liberty and Squirrel Hill.
“All of these became much easier to get to,” Lidji said. “And, as these roads open up, developers are opening up new parts of town.”
“It’s easy to look at East Liberty now as a city neighborhood but, for the Jewish community, it was the first suburban community,” Lidji added. “One hundred years ago, East Liberty would’ve been that place.”
East Liberty was founded as a village along the Greensburg & Pittsburgh Turnpike — now Penn Avenue — in the early 1800s, said Angelique Bamberg, who wrote B’nai Israel’s historic designation application. The neighborhood grew into a market center by the mid-1800s, presaging its later importance as a commercial district.
The construction of the Pennsylvania Railroad’s main line from Philadelphia and Harrisburg to Pittsburgh through the East Liberty Valley in 1852 spurred further growth, Bamberg said. The neighborhood was annexed to Pittsburgh in 1968.
“(East Liberty) became the principal commercial center of Pittsburgh’s East End and also began to develop as an affluent residential suburb,” Bamberg said. “The electrification of the streetcar system between 1890 and 1896, and the extension of the streetcar lines from downtown Pittsburgh through the East End, caused explosive development of the East Liberty commercial and residential districts, enticing Jews from the Hill District — among many others — to relocate there.”
Hornbostel also designed another East End landmark in the Jewish community — Rodef Shalom Congregation, which still sits on the Oakland/Shadyside border and recently received historic status from city officials.
At its peak, B’nai Israel was one of the largest Jewish congregations in Pittsburgh, boasting about 900 member families, Lidji said.
But East Liberty’s time as a center of Jewish living was brief. The first Jewish congregation in Squirrel Hill opened in 1917 and that neighborhood’s population boomed in the 1920s and 1930s, when Boulevard of the Allies extended to the East End from downtown, Lidji said.
By the 1970s, membership at B’nai Israel had declined due to Jewish migration to Squirrel Hill and outlying suburbs, Lidji said. The synagogue closed in June 1995. The building was briefly used as an Urban League of Pittsburgh Charter School.
Today, since redevelopment work led to the birth of a housing plan dubbed The Carina, residents now live in two stories redeveloped in tandem with the synagogue’s social hall, according to Beacon Communities. Thirty-eight of the units are deemed low-income.
The developer also is working with Bloomfield-Garfield Corp. to redevelop B’nai Israel’s storied rotunda. The cost of that work remains tentative.
“B’nai Israel consists of two interconnected but temporally and architecturally distinct parts: the original, drum-shaped synagogue of 1923 and an L-shaped community building added in phases between 1950 and 1953,” Bamberg wrote in the site’s application.
In 2022, the community building received alterations and an addition to adapt it for multifamily residential use, Bamberg said.
The synagogue’s main entrance also is notable.
“(It) faces east onto N. Negley Avenue and consists of three pair of paneled wood double doors set into a wall of smooth-dressed ashlar,” or masonry, Bamberg wrote. “Above them, an arched mosaic depicts the Ten Commandments held by lions rampant against a multi-colored harlequin background which echoes the pattern of shingles on the attic.”
Beacon Communities Senior Vice President Michael Polite said part of the agreement to redevelop the site included the historic designation.
State preservationists have reviewed the site, and the matter has passed Pittsburgh’s historic review commission, Polite said. Beacon expects a Pittsburgh City Council vote to make it officials in “a couple weeks.”
“This is an important community asset,” Polite told the Chronicle.
Pittsburgh city officials did not reply to inquiries for comment. PJC
Justin Vellucci is a freelance writer living in Pittsburgh.