The Texas Jewish Historical Society is donating $25,000 to Corsicana’s century-old, onion- domed synagogue, an architectural gem that needs $403,000 to replace rotting wood, upgrade HVAC equipment and install a fire-sprinkler system.
The city, which has owned and maintained the Moorish revival Temple Beth-El since 1987, is optimistic that the TJHS grant will attract funds from Jewish foundations and individuals, which in the past have contributed little for the landmark’s preservation.
Babbette Samuels, 89, the oldest surviving member of Corsicana’s once-thriving Jewish community, said it was a “miracle” that the TJHS approved the $25,000 grant. “The temple is a monument to Judaism and to this small town,” the octogenarian said, following an emotional discussion and vote at a TJHS board meeting June 11 in Austin. “The city of Corsicana has been taking care of the synagogue all these years and will continue to do so. It just wants financial help.”
The 117-year-old Temple Beth-El is listed on the National Register of Historic Places and has a Texas Historical Marker. Although repurposed as a city community center, the worship area —with its stained-glass windows, vintage menorahs and wooden pews — hosts Shabbat services once a month, drawing up to 20 people from miles around.
Dallas attorney Bud Silverberg, who grew up in Corsicana, told the TJHS board, “Temple Beth-El is not just a structure. It represents a part of our Jewish heritage and the lives of Jews living in small towns in Texas and across our great country.”
Since 1980, when Temple Beth-El’s congregation disbanded and its exotic building faced demolition, the local Christian community has rallied to preserve the religious landmark. Initially, a Save-the-Temple Committee staged potluck suppers, applied for grants, and hired a preservation architect to restore the building and reopen it as a community center available for weddings, parties and meetings.
The synagogue, located on 15th Street, is within sight of the Collin Street Bakery, known internationally for its fruitcake. Both landmarks draw tourists from around the world, most recently two Israelis representing the Israel Movement for Reform and Progressive Judaism. The website www.Synagogues360.org describes the building as “a fine example of Eastern European wood and Gothic masonry motifs modified for American frontier construction.”
Corsicana (population 25,000), a rural county seat 55 miles southwest of Dallas, budgets $30,000 annually for the temple’s upkeep. Seven years ago it restored the building’s twin onion-domed towers and three stained-glass windows — which some authorities say were crafted by Tiffany.
British-born Judith Steely, a non-Jew and president of the recently formed Corsicana Preservation Foundation, said local residents often wonder why Jews haven’t contributed toward maintaining this landmark. Last year she convened a meeting of Dallas residents with ancestral ties to Corsicana’s Jewish community. The idea to approach the TJHS for funds came from that meeting. The ad hoc committee plans to draft a formal fundraising plan to tap Jewish institutions and individuals.
The city restored three stained-glass windows seven years ago.
The city preservation society has also received a $25,000 restoration grant from the Navarro Community Foundation and $1,500 from the Church in the Park, a local Southern Baptist congregation. The Parks and Recreation Department has published a handsome brochure promoting the temple as a unique venue for weddings and receptions.
The distinctive synagogue, with its octagonal towers and keyhole windows, has seating for 150. The main sanctuary has a rose window with a Star of David and two other stained-glass windows depicting matching tablets of the Ten Commandments.
During the first half of the 20th century, Corsicana was a thriving oil, industrial, mercantile and agricultural center. It became home to more than 500 Jews and both a Reform and Orthodox synagogue. During the late-1960s, the younger generation began gravitating to urban areas. Faced with dwindling membership, the Reform Temple Beth-El, unable to afford the upkeep of its landmark building, disbanded in 1980. The Orthodox congregation, Agudas Achim, dissolved in 1999. Its building became a senior citizens center.
Temple Beth-El is the only onion-domed house of worship in the Southwest, and one of a handful across the country. The others include Temple Aaron in Trinidad, Colorado; Congregation B’nai Israel in Butte, Montana; and the Plum Street Temple in Cincinnati. The onion dome harks back to the Golden Age of Spain in Jewish history. Its use in Moorish revival architecture reflected optimism that the American Jewish experience would lead to another Golden Age.
Writing in 1990 about Corsicana’s distinctive synagogue, Texas historian Jane Manaster described it as a two-story wooden structure “fronted by a gabled roof and squat twin towers, each exotically topped by an onion-shaped cupola or dome.” Her article in the East Texas Historical Journal deemed the house of worship “a remarkable ecclesiastical heirloom.”
Renovations on Temple Beth-El have already begun, utilizing funds donated to date. According to Charla Allen, director of Parks and Recreation, restoration work is divided into four phases:
• Remove existing siding and substrate, install new plywood, weather barrier, and wood siding with trim to match original;
• Seal dissimilar material junctions with urethane sealant; paint new siding and trim with two coats of acrylic latex paint;
• Refurbish 24 windows and two doors;
• Install fire-sprinkler system and up-to-date heating, ventilation, and air-conditioning systems.
For further information or to make individual donations, contact the City of Corsicana Parks and Recreation Department, 903-654-4874 or www.cityofcorsicana.com.
Reprinted with the permission of the Texas Jewish Post.