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Synagogue Earns National Award for Restoration

July 17, 2004 – The St. Thomas Synagogue of B'racha V'shalom U'gmilut Chasadim (Blessing and Peace and Loving Deeds) is already a National Historic Landmark, and on the National Registration of Historic places. Now, thanks to a nomination by the St. Thomas Historical Trust, the synagogue has the distinction of being one of 16 recipients of the 2004 National Trust for Historic Preservation Honor Award.
That means, in part, that the quiet splendor of the synagogue now sits in the company of some of the greatest historic treasures in the United States, including the Massachusetts State House in Boston, which has been restored to its original state, and the gold rush era Beaumont Hotel in Ouray, Colo., that is bustling once again.
"This award centers on the quality of restoration and truthfulness of the period it's trying to emulate, but also on the way this project works to serve the community," said Susan Laura Lugo, president of the St. Thomas Historical Trust. "In other words, it was a broader view than 'they did a good job plastering.'"
The synagogue was rededicated on March 15, 2002, after a major restoration. The façade and interior walls were recovered, columns refurbished, windows reconstructed to reflect historical accuracy, mahogany columns installed, and chandeliers, candelabras and torchieres were restored and hung. The restoration happened with donations of time and money from the community and congregation.
But the creative mind behind the project was architect William Taylor, of St. Croix. And this is not the first accolade Taylor has won for his design for the restoration. Among the many honors, the St. Thomas-St. John Chamber of Commerce chose Taylor and the Synogogue for the organization's excellence in design award a few years ago.
This is the first time the St. Thomas Historical Trust has submitted a nomination for the National Preservation Award. Lugo said it was an easy choice. "The synagogue not only preserved the integrity of its structure for future generations of Virgin Islanders and visitors," she said. "It also served as a model and catalyst for improvements throughout the surrounding neighborhood. That is the preservation community working at its best."
Jane Sheen, of the Historical Trust, served as project manager for the nomination. The proposal included several support letters, a narrative on the structure, photos, and other support documentation. Katina Coulianos, president of the synagogue, said they are very happy about the award, which will be presented on Sept. 30 in Louisville, Ky., at the 2004 National Preservation Conference.
The Synagogue, founded in 1796 and twice destroyed by fire, was reconstructed in 1833. It's the third oldest synagogue in the Western Hemisphere, the oldest in continuous use under the American flag. Services have been held there every Sabbath since 1833 except Sept. 15, 1995, when Hurricane Marilyn devastated St. Thomas.
To visitors, the most distinguishing feature of the synagogue is the floor. "You expect your feet to hit something hard, like tile or wood," said one visitor. Instead, you might find yourself sinking down a bit into the loose sand that covers the entire floor. According to the Historical Trust, the sand is a reminder of the days of the Spanish Inquisition, when Jews were forced to worship in secret, and the sand muffled the sounds of their prayers. Another explanation says the sand represents the 40-year desert exile of the Jews.
Another of the synagogue's notable features is its community involvement. The congregation has helped sponsor several events including a concert by Itzhak Perlman and a lecture by Ruth Bader Ginsburg. There is also a partnership with the nearby St. Thomas Reform Church, and a special service each January to honor high school students who embody the principles of the late Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr.
Lugo said there are a lot of preservation projects that need to be done on the islands, and the trust is trying to make them possible. She encourages anyone who has a structure in mind to contact the St. Thomas Historical Trust at 774-5541.
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