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What Once Was

An Endangered Synagogue Mural in the Mount Vernon Neighborhood

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Last summer, the rediscovery of long forgotten mural in a former synagogue in Burlington, Vermont building, which had been converted into apartments, started getting a lot of press coverage. The work of a Lithuanian-born artist, the mural had been walled off by sheetrock for the past 25 years. The elaborate two-story mural that rose to the ceiling was located behind were the ark holding the Torah was kept, and features two colorful lions of Judah flanking a tablet of the Ten Commandments. When the mural was recently uncovered to see about preserving it, it was still considered the only one of its kind left in the world.

The second floor of the house at  415 M Street, NW where part of the mural can still be seen.  photo- courtesy Jewish Historical Society of Greater Washington.

The second floor of the house at 415 M Street, NW where part of the mural can still be seen. photo- courtesy Jewish Historical Society of Greater Washington.

In the early 1990s, the new owner of a rundown house at 415 M Street, NW in the historic Mt. Vernon Square neighborhood that had served as a series of churches during its last 70 years, peeled back some wallpaper and discovered a mural similar to the one in Vermont. Realizing what it was, she then contacted the Jewish Historical Society and did what she could to preserve the mural in place. Thanks to her efforts, the mural continued to survive for another 23 years, although she added a winged lion as part her efforts to restore it. According to Zachary Paul Levine, curator at the Jewish Historical Society of Greater Washington (JHSGW), there appears to be nothing else like it to be found in other synagogues in DC from this period.

The three-story house at 415 M Street where the mural is located was originally built in the 1860s and was the home of Joseph Prather, a butcher who had a stall at the nearby Northern Liberty Market that was located on Mt. Vernon Square in the 1870s. In 1914, the house became home to the Young Men’s Hebrew Association for a year, and from 1915 to 1925, it served as the Hebrew Home for the Aged.

415 M Street, NW.  This photo probably dates from when the house was still a single family home. photo--courtesy Jewish Historical Society of Greater Washington.

415 M Street, NW. This photo probably dates from when the house was still a single family home. photo–courtesy Jewish Historical Society of Greater Washington.

In the late 1920s, the house became home to Shomrei Shabbos, a synagogue for a tiny East European orthodox Jewish community that remained there into the 1930s. It was then that part of the first floor ceiling was removed to create an open sanctuary. As with the former synagogue in Vermont, they too decorated the area over the ark where the Torah was stored with a beautiful two-story decorative mural. A 10-foot by 10-foot portion of that mural is still intact on the second floor that was directly above the ark.

After the congregation left downtown for a new home uptown on Decatur Street in the Petworth neighborhood, the house became home to the Church of Jesus Christ, an offshoot of the BibleWayChurch, and after that to the MetropolitanCommunityChurch. A baptismal font from the building’s use as a church is still accessible through a trapdoor on the first floor.

In 1992, the building was bought and converted back into a single family home. That owner —- the custodian of the remaining part of the mural for over 20 years —-  recently sold the house to developer Blackrock Holdings. Blackrock will convert the house, along with an addition in the adjacent vacant lot, into six condominium units.

Detail of the mural and the winged lion added by the house’s previous owner.  photo- courtesy Jewish Historical Society of Greater Washington.

Detail of the mural and the winged lion added by the house’s previous owner. photo- courtesy Jewish Historical Society of Greater Washington.

The JHSGW would very much like to move and restore the mural and has been working with the developer to help find a new home for it. But this is a difficult and expensive endeavor, with the cost to carefully remove the mural potentially reaching into the tens of thousands of dollars. And time is running out. Construction on the condo project this summer. The JHSGW has only until July to find a way to get the mural removed from the house. If the mural is lost, it will erase the last trace of the ethnic communities that used the building over the last century and a half.

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*Stephen A. Hansen is an historic preservation specialist, Washington, DC historian, and principal at DC Historic Designs, LLC. He also authors the blog Virtual Architectural Archaeology.