Green Notes: Synagogue reuse project hits a home run

2013-02-19T00:00:00Z 2013-02-26T11:51:08Z Green Notes: Synagogue reuse project hits a home runLauri Harvey Keagle, (219) 852-4311

David Piser had a problem.

The B'Nai Yisrael Reconstructionist Synagogue he and his family attended for nearly a century in downtown South Bend did not have enough members left to survive. The synagogue, built in 1901, was the first place of worship for the Jewish community in South Bend.

Piser and his uncle, the only two members left, closed the building in 1991.

"We closed it all down, moth-balled it and went through the machinations of trying to find a buyer," Piser said. "When we started to run out of the synagogue's money, that's when we got in touch with Todd Zeiger's organization."

Zeiger is the director of the Northern Regional Office of Indiana Landmarks in South Bend.

"They decided to de-consecrate the building and they didn't want it to be demolished," Zeiger said. "They wanted a new use that would be respectful and honor the history of the building."

Indiana Landmarks tried to buy time for the building, located on Williams Street just outside left field fence at the South Bend Silver Hawks' Covaleski Stadium, to keep it from being destroyed. The group removed vines overtaking the facade and patched the roof to keep the rain and snow out.

In time, the City of South Bend bought the building, but officials were still unclear as to what to do with it.

Twenty years after the synagogue closed, Andrew Berlin, chairman and CEO of Chicago-based Berlin Packaging, bought the Silver Hawks from former Indiana Gov. Joe Kernan in November 2011. Berlin, an investor in the Chicago White Sox, had a vision for turning the synagogue into a team store.

"He called a meeting of Jewish leaders for a breakfast at The Cove and he asked some questions and learned the history of the synagogue," Piser said. "He said he could build new for less. We said, 'Yes, but you'll lose a part of important history. Poles, Slavs, Jews, Romanians all lived in that area."

"It didn't take him long to say, 'Yes, we're going to rehab it and turn it into a store,'" Piser said.

Piser said Berlin consulted with the Jewish community every step of the way to ensure the process met with their approval.

"He suggested a bulls eye on the roof," Piser said. "If a hitter hit the bulls eye, someone in the stands would win a prize. We said we didn't really think that would be appropriate and he agreed."

Joe Hart, president of the Silver Hawks, said the challenge in the restoration and reuse project was to preserve the building's historic elements in an environmentally sound way that at the same time would boost merchandise sales.

"Once you get into a building that is 110 years old, you find all sorts of things," Hart said.

The building has the original tin roof ceiling, original stained-glass windows and a mural of Noah's Arc where the synagogue's holy arc containing the Torah scrolls once stood.

The mural sits behind the cash registers and has the words "Rain Delay" painted above it.

Berlin invested $1 million in renovating the synagogue, $40,000 of which went toward restoring the historic chandelier in the center of the building.

The building has a balcony which was used for women's seating and had a separate, external staircase and entrance for the women. When the team removed the old staircase and door, they filled in the hole in the wall with bricks taken from the old chimney.

The synagogue-turned-team store opened on May 25, 2012. A few weeks later, the team hosted the Jewish Federation and former members of B'Nai Yisrael for a relighting of the historic chandelier.

"We had 150 people in this room when we kicked on the light for the first time," Hart said. "You would hear the older people in the room reminiscing about the time they spent here as members of the synagogue and talking about how much they liked what we did with the building and it was really great.

"It let us know we did it the right way."

Don Inks, director of economic resources for the City of South Bend, said the project was significant on many levels.

"It involved both environmental good practice and cultural preservation," Inks said. "We've all lost a lot of historic buildings in our downtowns and we've worked hard to preserve them here in South Bend."

Zeiger said the building has been nominated for the National Register of Historic Places. The synagogue's reuse, he said, does not change its eligibility for the national register.

"Because the reuse was done in such a respectful way, it didn't impact the historic integrity of the building," Zeiger said.

Zeiger said a preservation covenant has been placed on the building protecting it from demolition as well.

"When we got the building, if you'd told me a Jewish owner would come in and buy the Silver Hawks and repurpose it for a team store while maintaining its cultural and historic integrity, I would have never believed it," Zeiger said.

"We're so fortunate to have an owner who understands and embraces the importance of that space."

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