Bevis Marks Synagogue: Restoring A Grade I Gem


A dramatic view of the birdcage scaffold erected inside Bevis Marks Synagogue to allow repair and refurbishment
 

Bevis Marks Synagogue is the oldest continually operating synagogue in the UK, opening in 1701, since which time apart from short periods of repair and maintenance services have never stopped. It is regarded by the Jewish community of the UK as the 'mother synagogue'. As a Grade I listed building, the highest measure of importance by Historic England it is a significant part of the historical fabric of the City of London. An exciting project, part-funded by the UK Lottery and other generous donors, will allow the synagogue to continue its religious function while at the same time creating a new museum and educational programmes for visitors, not just in the UK but worldwide. Although inevitably delayed by the current pandemic, work has now commenced on the restoration of the synagogue and the transformation of the former annex and undercroft into a museum and educational space for opening in 2022.

In this article I will take you inside the synagogue to see the current refurbishment activities as well as into spaces which are rarely seen by the members, let alone the public at large.

 

Outside and in: prior to refurbishment, an exterior of the synangoue and its quiet courtyard, and an interior view of the sanctuary with the ark containing the Torah scrolls on the far wall and furniture which dates back to the opening in 1701.

The synagogue was established by Spanish and Portuguese Jews escaping from persecution in their countries in the 17th century who found refuge in the UK. The first activity of any Jewish community in a new land is to create a burial ground, which the community did without delay, in the then rural area of Mile End (now within the grounds of Queen Mary University). The second activity is to create a place of worship and this was completed, here at the edge of the City of London off the medieval street of Bevis Marks in a quiet, secluded courtyard. The architect of the synagogue is believed to have been a pupil of Sir Christoper Wren and indeed the building shows his significant influence over its design.

In the last two years I have become very familiar with the interior of the building but even so, I was not prepared for how a specialist restoration takes steps to protect the exterior and interior of the building, especially where there is little room on site for any facilities.

Work underway: (l) the dramatic cladding of the exterior with scaffolding, (r) a mechanical digger removes a late 20th annexe to make way for a brand new museum and exhibition space, with facilties for educational and community programmes.

Once inside the extent of the work to restore the interior is also on a scale which impresses the eye. However, first stop on entering the synagogue is a reminder of the impact of the pandemic on all activity. Before I was allowed access to the site I had my temperature taken and at all times I wore a mask and gloves and avoided close proximity with the staff.

Posters and reminders are about Covid compliance as well as the importance of the site itself.

The synagogue last underwent restoration in 1992 when it suffered from the effect of blast damaged from the bombing of the nearby Baltic Exchange by the IRA (and again in 1993 after a later IRA incident). The impact of the explosion caused significant damage to the roof, glass and by virtue of debris, the interior. A heroic effort by Barry Musikant, Chair of the S&P BUildings Commitee who swiftly dealt witht both the insurers and the builders had the synagogue restored and re-opened before any of the other historic buildings which had suffered blast damage. The imposing presence of 30 St Mary Axe over the synagogue is a constant reminder.

The view from the roof of the synagogue looking west to the nearby modern buildings including
(l) 30 St Mary Axe (the 'Gherkin') and (r) 70 St Mary Axe Tower (the 'can of ham').
 
The most dramatic structure inside the synagogue is the birdcage scaffold which extends upwards to all levels. This amazing construction is required for access to the walls, windows and ceiling of the synagogue for restoration work. It is worth noting the extent of protection given to many of the fixtures which cannot be removed during restoration.

 

 
(top) View of the interior showing the birdcage scaffold from the raised reading platform, the bimah in Hebrew, at ground floor level,
(bottom) from the first floor scaffolding level just above the height of ladies gallery and in line with the windows.
 
Having hauled myself, my cameras and my tripod through two other levels of ladders and scaffold (not bad for a man in the second half of his sixties!) I was rewarded by the closest view of the magnificent ceiling of the synagogue I will ever see. In my naiveté I never realised that the 'cables' from which the chandeliers are suspended are actually cast iron made to look like rope. I am not sure if the rosettes are wood, plaster or metai.
 
At the ceiling level of the scaffold and the chance to inspect closely the fixture and
hanging for the chandelier which light the synagogue during services.

They say the best is always reserved for last and I was asked by the site manager if I would like to visit the roof space of the building accessible only from the exterior scaffolding. Before entering he said, "be prepared to be amazed!".

I have rarely been open mouthed with wonder at something in my life but the expression on my face must have amused his colleagues who were holding a meeting inside the roof.

(l) The loft space on top of the synagogue taken from approximately the centre of the space,
(r) close up of a beam used to support a single chandelier in the synagogue.

The first impression of the loft space is that it resembles some of the fine historic barns that can still be found in the UK. The volume is enormous as is the scale of the timbers used in its construction. The original roof which was constructed before the synagogue opened in 1701 was destroyed by fire in 1738 and not restored until 1749, from which I assumed nearly all of the structure seen today originates.

My guide pointed out several interesting features. There is an uncorroborated story that the timber used as the support for the chandelier (right, above) was donated from the mast of a naval ship by the Crown. Whatever its origin it is beautifully sawed and shaped single piece of a tree trunk. The method of holding the beam in place and the fixture for anchoring the chain to the chandelier are also authentic and interesting. You may be able to make out next to the lower left edge the word 'Jeeffery' scratched into the wood. An internet search for the word reveals it is not a mispelling of Jeffrey but a first name, no longer in common use, spelt as etched into the wood and with a German Jewish origin.

Also pointed out to me (not pictured) was one of the main cross beams supporting the roof. As a single piece of wood, hewn from the trunk of a tree, my guide estimated its weight at around three tons, and then wondered how in the early 18th century the builders managed to hoist such a heavy item up to the roof.

Although plans were discussed to make the roof space available to the public when the synagogue and exhibition area are opened in 2022, the budget behind the restoration and building work could not stretch that far. Hopefully, at some point in the future it might be opened because apart from the former Sir John Cass primary school at the end of Bevis Marks or St Botolphs Without Aldgate Church, also nearby, I cannot think of another 17th century wooden roof space like it anywhere else in the immediate area. Seeing the roof space reinforces the understanding that this is a Grade I listed building, the highest possible classification.

For this particular visit to the construction, my time was up and with help from my hosts carrying some of my photographic equipment, I returned to the ground floor. 

As the project photographer for the Bevis Marks Synagogue Heritage Foundation I have been asked to document the progress of the restoration and construction work, especially of the addition of the new museum/exhibition space, which I will have the opportunity to share in the future.

For more information about the Bevis Marks Synagogue Heritage Foundation and to see how it will look when completed please visit the website

My thanks to the Bevis Marks, Belvedere Project Solutions and Desertoak Ltd.

All photography copyright 2021 LouisBerk.com no unauthorised reproduction allowed.