In 1916, Tennessee’s oldest and largest Jewish congregation dedicated this magnificent Byzantine-inspired synagogue. The temple was built to replace an outdated 19th-century Moorish-style temple located a few miles away. Designed by local architects, the building is an excellent example of an early American domed synagogue, with a large central dome and two smaller flanking domes – a type that would become widespread by the 1920s.
The new sanctuary reportedly sat 1,200 patrons and had an enormous $10,000 ($220,000 today) organ. The building included an auditorium with a stage in the basement and 14 classrooms that were used as part of a religious school. This more expansive complex is indicative of changes in the function of the Jewish synagogue. By the early 20th century, synagogues increasingly came to serve as Jewish community centers. Worshipers entered through three sets of double doors, passing under an entablature carved with the biblical verse fragment, “Thou Shalt Love Thy Neighbor As Thyself” (Leviticus 19:18).
In 1976, the congregation moved to a 30-acre wooded campus in East Memphis. The new building was designed by Francis Gassner of Gassner, Nathan, and Partners, with Percival Goodman as consulting architect. Besides the 1,500-seat main sanctuary, the modern complex includes a 300-seat chapel and 32 classrooms. The synagogue was sold to a theological seminary, which occupied the site until 1996, after which it became the Memphis Academy of Science and Engineering. When the congregation vacated the building, they took with them the ner tamid (eternal light), Torah ark doors, and Ten Commandments wall decoration, all of which were installed in the new chapel.
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