Under the planned renovation of Congregation Emanu-El in San Francisco, the main entrance on Lake Street will be reopened after decades of disuse due to security and accessibility issues. /Rendering courtesy of Mark Cavagnero Associates
Under the planned renovation of Congregation Emanu-El in San Francisco, the main entrance on Lake Street will be reopened after decades of disuse due to security and accessibility issues. /Rendering courtesy of Mark Cavagnero Associates

Emanu-El reveals details of $72 million remodel of an S.F. icon

Congregation Emanu-El is the largest synagogue in the Bay Area, with 2,100 households. And now it has big plans to match.

If all goes according to plan, a massive $72 million overhaul of the San Francisco synagogue will begin in three years and be completed by 2025, the building’s centennial year.

At a presentation on Tuesday, the rabbis and staff of the Reform synagogue introduced the community to architect Mark Cavagnero and his elegant, modern design for an overhaul of the facility.

Though the iconic, domed sanctuary will not change, almost everything else will.

Existing classrooms will be redone and new classrooms will be added. A play area for children will be created on the roof, new casual social spaces will be created, clergy offices will become easier to access, the historic Lake Street entryway will be reopened after several decades, a sweeping view of San Francisco will become accessible on a new roof deck and, importantly, the building will be made more seismically safe.

A preliminary rendering of a view of the Lake Street entrance of Congregation Emanu-El in San Francisco from inside the remodeled courtyard. /Rendering courtesy of Mark Cavagnero Associates
A preliminary rendering of a view of the Lake Street entrance of Congregation Emanu-El in San Francisco from inside the remodeled courtyard. /Rendering courtesy of Mark Cavagnero Associates

“One hundred years ago, this was mostly sand dunes,” Cavagnero said of the land underneath Emanu-El. “So to make the building seismically secure, we have to get down below all that.” In the course of excavating under the courtyard for the seismic refit, new office space will be added in that lower level.

“[This] week, we’ll read about building the ark, to carry humanity forward,” Rabbi Jonathan Singer told the crowd, referring to the Torah portion Noach. “We need to build something new to carry this community forward. The builders of this building, 100 years ago, they had a grand vision. They wanted this building to be a community center. But the needs of a community today are different from what it was 100 years ago.”

How different? For one, Emanu-El leaders have lamented a dearth of casual social space. Classrooms tend to do double and triple duty, with staff having to rotate furniture in and out multiple times over the week.

And then there are the offices.

“Anyone know how to get to Rabbi [Ryan] Bauer’s office?” Singer said to the audience, eliciting laughter. “Few people do. But we want your clergy to be accessible to you.”

This rendering of the planned remodeling of Congregation Emanu-El in San Francisco shows the restored and updated main entrance (center) and additional classrooms on top of the "Temple House" wing (left) /Rendering courtesy of Mark Cavagnero Associates
This rendering of the planned remodeling of Congregation Emanu-El in San Francisco shows the restored and updated main entrance (center) and additional classrooms on top of the “Temple House” wing (left) /Rendering courtesy of Mark Cavagnero Associates

Bauer spoke to the assembly about the need for a more inviting community space. “Right now, the building kind of says ‘get out,’” he said. “We want this to be a place where the whole family comes together … a beehive where you can see people having coffee and adults learning and kids playing above, there’s the energy of the entire community coming together and learning together.”

The remodel plans have been in the works since 2012, said David Goldman, executive director of the synagogue, founded in 1850. “We recognized that the building had begun to work against us, rather than help us.”

Yes, the upgrade comes with an eye-popping $72 million price tag. But Goldman says the financials are all well within the congregation’s grasp. “It’s a 100-year investment. Over 65 percent is already raised,” he said to applause.

In an interview with J. ahead of the event, Goldman emphasized that the congregation’s finances will remain stable. “This will be a paid-for-upfront project,” he said, adding that, as a bonus, the synagogue’s endowment will likely grow by $18 million as part of the plan.

Under the planned renovation of Congregation Emanu-El in San Francisco, a new roof deck will be added on top of the existing courtyard portico. /Rendering courtesy of Mark Cavagnero Associates
Under the planned renovation of Congregation Emanu-El in San Francisco, a new roof deck will be added on top of the existing courtyard portico. /Rendering courtesy of Mark Cavagnero Associates

“We consider this one of the most beautiful buildings in San Francisco of any type, up there with City Hall and a handful of others,” said Cavagnero, whose firm is known for large public projects and civic spaces, such as the SF Jazz Center and the remodel of the California Legion of Honor Museum.

Emanu-El’s original 1920s architect, the late Arthur Brown Jr., who also designed City Hall, modeled it on the historical Second Temple in Jerusalem. A visitor to the building would proceed through a grand, stepped entrance into a courtyard and then straight into the sanctuary on the opposite side of the courtyard. For 30 years, because of security and accessibility, that awe-inspiring entrance experience has been unavailable. Instead, visitors enter through the Arguello Avenue side, passing through a jury-rigged security area, robbed of the experience Brown intended.

Congregation Emanu-El's 1925 building, designed by Arthur Brown Jr., was modeled on the inner portion of the Second Temple, built in the First Century BCE, with a stepped entrance to a courtyard with a direct line of sight to the inner sanctuary on the opposite side of the courtyard, as seen here in the 1966 Holyland Model of Jerusalem in Israel. /Wikimedia-Juan R. Cuadra
Congregation Emanu-El’s 1925 building, designed by Arthur Brown Jr., was modeled on the inner portion of the Second Temple, built in the First Century BCE, with a stepped entrance to a courtyard with a direct line of sight to the inner sanctuary on the opposite side of the courtyard, as seen here in the 1966 Holyland Model of Jerusalem in Israel. /Wikimedia-Juan R. Cuadra

“It has beauty and authority,” Cavagnero said. “We don’t want to diminish that, but bring some of it back that has eroded over the years.”

To do that, the main entryway will be reopened and made more secure and accessible. It will open onto an entirely new street-level floor with a welcome center, elevators to the main level and a security desk.

The portico around the courtyard will be enclosed by glass walls, becoming a new two-story interior space with casual areas for socializing on the main level and adult education classrooms above, all while preserving the openness of the courtyard. There is even talk of a coffee shop.

The courtyard will no longer be used as a play area for the synagogue’s preschool children. Instead, a new space will be constructed on the roof that will include a safe and secure play area — as well as a stunning view of the city.

Under the planned renovation of Congregation Emanu-El, a new play area for children will be added on the roof of the wing that houses the synagogue's classrooms. /Rendering courtesy of Mark Cavagnero Associates
Under the planned renovation of Congregation Emanu-El, a new play area for children will be added on the roof of the wing that houses the synagogue’s classrooms. /Rendering courtesy of Mark Cavagnero Associates

Downstairs, the social hall, which was originally built to be a basketball court, will be fully converted into a multiuse social hall. Currently, it is surrounded by the preschool, which means no big events can be held there during the day. But with the preschool moving to the top floor, the remodeled hall will be available for all manner of events, and it will include a large, open kitchen that can be used for food classes and programs.

Reimagining an iconic Jewish institution is a tall order, but the stakeholders say they are more than ready to get going.

“When you look at this grand sanctuary from 1925, built by 300 families, they were able to project a need that they couldn’t experience themselves,” Rabbi Beth Singer said. “That’s hard. We don’t have a crystal ball, but we hope this will be the right model to carry us into the future.”

David A.M. Wilensky
David A.M. Wilensky

David A.M. Wilensky is the online editor of J. and "Jew in the Pew" columnist. He can be reached at david@jweekly.com.