Sherith Israel to begin long-awaited seismic retrofit

Congregation Sherith Israel in San Francisco will start its long-awaited seismic retrofit project Monday, April 19 — 104 years and one day after the building survived the 1906 earthquake.

“Having construction start,” said Lynn Sedway, the synagogue’s board president, “sends a wonderful message: that this architectural treasure will be saved, and that this incredible community will be here for the next century, not just the previous century.”

Inside Sherith Israel’s main sanctuary photo/laszlo regos

Sherith Israel’s building, which includes the synagogue’s iconic golden-domed sanctuary, has been in violation of seismic regulations since San Francisco approved strict codes for unreinforced masonry buildings after the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake.

The codes require certain buildings to undergo extensive, and expensive, retrofitting. An estimated 28 houses of worship in San Francisco have had to close or repurpose their buildings because they couldn’t afford to make the upgrades.

Since 1996, Sherith Israel has not legally been able to use its main building for more than 12 hours per week — or four hours in any one day — if hosting more than 299 people, meaning that it has had to hold its daylong Yom Kippur services off-site.

“We inherited this building from those who opened it in 1905 — and we have a unique opportunity now to be the generation that preserves the building for another century,” said Rabbi Larry Raphael. “It’s been a challenge for us, but one that’s been embraced by a lot of people.”

The retrofit will unfold in two phases. Phase one will cost an estimated $8 million and is expected to be completed in nine months. Phase two will begin as soon as the congregation can raise an additional $4 million, bringing the total cost of the retrofit to $12 million.

Congregation Sherith Israel’s main sanctuary seats 1,385 and has been used since it was consecrated in 1905. photo/larry rosenberg

The Reform congregation of 635 households has so far raised $5.3 million from 213 individual donors, including one particularly notable donor,  Eleanor Stout. The elderly woman wasn’t Jewish and wasn’t a synagogue member, but she regularly attended events and services. When she died last year, she left her entire estate (totaling nearly $1 million) to the synagogue.

In addition to raising funds, Sherith Israel leaders have struggled to figure out how to meet the seismic guidelines without altering the decorative, historic surfaces within the sanctuary or modifying the building’s exterior.

Thanks to technology that wasn’t available even three years ago, architects and engineers were able to use a sophisticated computer program to determine the optimal way to strengthen the building.

Engineers will reinforce the structure from inside the walls, leaving the interior of the historic sanctuary untouched. Because the retrofit is focused almost entirely on internal structural improvements, congregants and staff will continue to use the building for the duration of the project.

“That’s the great part of this — it’s such an elegant solution,” said Nancy Drapin, Sherith Israel’s executive director.

The bulk of the work set to begin April 19 is called center coring. The construction team will drill through the brick and stone exterior, adding steel rods and grout to the interior to strengthen the walls.

Capital campaign chair David Newman (left), executive director Nancy Drapin and Rabbi Larry Raphael look at plans for the retrofit. photo/ellen newman

Floor-to-wall ties will tether the two elements together more securely to increase the building’s resistance to the forces of a major earthquake.

All of the “couldn’t have been done 20 years ago,” Raphael said.

Phase one also includes plans to restore the stained-glass windows on the south side of the building and to remove the building’s exterior pink paint, reinforce the sandstone walls and return the building to its original sandstone color (a greenish-gray tone).

Phase two calls for more seismic construction on the dome, additional buttresses on the synagogue’s north wall and the insertion of a flexible but durable nickel titanium alloy in the building’s roof.

The 159-year-old congregation was founded in 1851 at the height of the Gold Rush in California. In 1902 the congregation commissioned Albert Pissis — the architect of the Emporium, the Flood Building, Hibernia Bank and the Mechanics’ Institute — to design its new home on California and Webster Streets.

The project was spearheaded by 134 families who raised $250,000 — $7 million in today’s dollars, Dragain Said.

The sanctuary was consecrated in 1905. The building’s highlights include a central dome that stands some 373 feet tall, hand-painted frescoes and opalescent stained-glass windows.

Following the 1906 earthquake, Sherith Israel served as the Superior Court building, housing the corruption trials of San Francisco Mayor Eugene Schmitz and political boss Abe Ruef.

“We never doubted this congregation would rally behind the project,” Drapin said. “Sherith Israel is home to a living, growing community. People once thought we weren’t. But we are really strong.”


Project to launch with ‘Hard-Hat Shabbat’

Congregation Sherith Israel will celebrate the beginning of its seismic retrofit with Hard-Hat Shabbat at 6 p.m. April 16. An evening service and oneg will follow.

Rabbi Larry Raphael, Rabbi Julie Saxe-Taller and Rabbi Emeritus Martin Weiner will lead the celebration. The congregation’s Koleynu Choir will fill the sanctuary with song, and Jonathan Dimmock will play the historic Murray Harris organ, a 3,500-pipe instrument that has been in continuous use since 1905.

For information, call Abbey Herman, (415) 346-1720 ext. 20, or e-mail aherman@sherithisrael.org.

Related: Dome, sweet dome: Saving a Jewish and local landmark

Stacey Palevsky

Stacey Palevsky is a former J. staff writer.