Downtown synagogue makes national list of historic sites

Monday, May 17, 2004

The B'nai Israel synagogue in downtown Cape Girardeau is the latest addition to the National Register of Historic Places.

The May 5 approval by state and federal departments is just one step in preserving the synagogue's structure and heritage, said developer John Wyman, owner of the synagogue. The building is now eligible for tax credits on restoration projects.

The next step is to "find some sympathetic use for the building that will allow us to restore it and open it to the public," he said. It needs to benefit the immediate "eclectic historic" area, he said, because it is beside Old St. Vincent's Cathedral and across the street from the Red House Interpretive Center.

Currently, Wyman is working with local artist Tim Gould for a possible art gallery and an after-school art program. Plans are subject to change, he said.

He bought the synagogue about a year ago from Marty Hecht, original owner of the synagogue and former owner of Hecht's Store in downtown Cape Girardeau. He hired Melinda Winchester of Jackson to handle the registration process.

A senior at Southeast Missouri State University, Winchester accepted the job as an assignment for a class in historic preservation. In addition, she was responsible for approval of the Himmelberger and Harrison Building at 400 Broadway in July 2003.

She was able to prove that the building met two criteria set by the Missouri Department of Natural Resources State Historic Preservation Office.

The building met the criteria for ethnic heritage because it was the only regional synagogue for the orthodox Jewish community in Southeast Missouri and Southern Illinois from 1937 to 1999. It also met the criteria for architecture because it was built in the Spanish Colonial Revival style with stucco white walls, a heavily tiled roof and wrought iron gates. The building also shows Islamic influences with the domed portico, arched openings and ceramic tiles.

The interior is "just gorgeous," Winchester said, with much of the sanctuary still intact -- red-oak pews, stained-glass windows, hand-painted ceramic tiles, the podium and the arch that holds the Torah. Repair work will include plaster work, painting, window repair and leak repair in the bathrooms and kitchen.

Research on the synagogue was much easier, Winchester said, because the building had only two owners and most of the original documents were kept in the synagogue.

The most interesting information, she said, is that the Cape Girardeau community was supportive of the synagogue, with local business owners contributing financially toward its construction.

Winchester is currently researching for the Southeast Missourian building to be placed on the register.

335-6611 extension 127

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