The Arizona Jewish Historical Society Building Returns to Its Roots

The next time you walk out the front door of Burton Barr Central Library, look directly across the street and to your left, and you'll see a gorgeous building that I'm guessing you haven't noticed before.

The beautiful Mission-style edifice you'll see there is now home to the Arizona Jewish Historical Society, but it was originally Phoenix's first synagogue. And our first-ever Chinese Christian church. This creamy stuccoed structure, built in 1922, is also significant as an example of the esteemed architecture of Lescher & Mahoney, the firm also responsible for Phoenix City Hall, the Cartwright School, the Orpheum Theater, Hanny's, and the Central Post Office.

And for a change, I'm not writing about this building because it's about to be torn down or converted into a mixed-use facility with a new metal-and-concrete courtyard and a Starbuck's in the lobby. I'm writing about it because it's been saved. It's being restored. And here's my favorite part: It's returned to its Jewish roots.

The building was originally home to congregates of Temple Beth Israel, who built the second, smaller building immediately next door and used it as a religious school and gathering place. Before 1922, Jews in Phoenix met for worship in private homes; the new buildings at First and Culver streets, according to Heritage Center director Lawrence Bell, allowed them to gather as a real community.

"This was really the only place the local Jewish community had for coming together," Bell says. "People want to know if Temple Beth was Orthodox, Conservative, or Reform back then. I always tell them, 'It was Jewish. All denominations met here back then.'"

Eventually, local Jewish denominations began building their own temples, and when Temple Beth outgrew the synagogue, it moved to larger digs on North 56th Street. The old building became home to a Chinese Baptist church in 1949 and, in 1980, was sold to a Hispanic Baptist congregation. As Iglesia Baptista, the building's Spanish Mission style at last matched the heritage of the people worshipping there.

Synagogues have a long history of aping the style of local architecture, Bell says. "Because Jews were often the minority in most American communities, they tended to keep a low profile. In Muslim lands, the synagogues took on Islamic designs; in the American Southwest, they might be designed in the Mission style. There's no such thing as standard synagogue architecture."

When Iglesia Baptista moved on in 2001, the Historical Society reclaimed the building, buying it with donations from the community and renaming it the Cutler Plotkin Jewish Heritage Center after late congregates James and Bettie Cutler and Rabbi Albert Plotkin, a civil rights activist who led Scottsdale's congregation Beth Israel until his death last year. For a change, the city took notice of the significance of the building and awarded a large-ish matching grant that allowed the new tenants to commence a colossal renovation. The temple building, classroom annex, and the interior of the sanctuary have all been restored and, thanks to additional grant money, a second phase of construction restored the historic bungalow that's also on the site and refurbished the social hall and administration building. The buildings and grounds are available for rent and are home to the Historical Society's offices. The proposed museum, which will archive and display Arizona's Jewish artifacts, isn't yet completed. But Bell is looking forward to making public a collection that will finally prove that Phoenix is a city with a varied cultural history, one that occasionally cares about preserving its own past.

He likes to point out how three separate minority communities, each of them instrumental in founding this city, have called his workplace "home."

"I'm a native of Phoenix," Bell says, "and I've grown up hearing two major complaints: Phoenix doesn't have a lot of history, and we're not a very diverse city. But this building is proof that that's not true."

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Robrt L. Pela has been a weekly contributor to Phoenix New Times since 1991, primarily as a cultural critic. His radio essays air on National Public Radio affiliate KJZZ's Morning Edition.
Contact: Robrt L. Pela