Great Synagogue | NSW Environment & Heritage

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Great Synagogue

Item details

Name of item: Great Synagogue
Other name/s: The Great Synagogue
Type of item: Built
Group/Collection: Religion
Category: Synagogue
Location: Lat: -33.8725521971 Long: 151.2096003380
Primary address: 187A Elizabeth Street, Sydney, NSW 2000
Parish: St James
County: Cumberland
Local govt. area: Sydney
Local Aboriginal Land Council: Metropolitan
Property description
Lot/Volume CodeLot/Volume NumberSection NumberPlan/Folio CodePlan/Folio Number
LOT1 DP52572
All addresses
Street AddressSuburb/townLGAParishCountyType
187A Elizabeth StreetSydneySydneySt JamesCumberlandPrimary Address
166 Castlereagh StreetSydneySydney  Alternate Address

Owner/s

Organisation NameOwner CategoryDate Ownership Updated
The Great SynagogueReligious Organisation 

Statement of significance:

The Great Synagogue is of state and potentially national significance as the earliest surviving synagogue in NSW still in use, which has represented the centre of Jewish worship and culture in central Sydney since the 1870s. The Great Synagogue is associated with the Mother Congregation of Australian Jewry, together with many subsequent leading members and families of the Jewish faith. By its prominent situation and presence in Central Sydney, its magnificent architectural grandeur, its rich symbolism, and its important collection of Hebrew documents and other religious artefacts, the Great Synagogue also embodies and demonstrates the early development and importance of the Jewish faith and culture in New South Wales during the 19th Century.

The Great Synagogue is a major landmark of Sydney. It is the only high Victorian style Synagogue in Australia and represents one of the most elaborately decorated Victorian buildings in Sydney, internally and externally. The building also represents one of the finest works of the leading NSW architect, Thomas Rowe. It contains excellent examples of the best quality decorative work in moulded plaster, carved sandstone and timber, metalwork, tiling and stained glass that is remarkable for its richness, originality and the degree of craftsmanship by leading decorative firms of the High Victorian period from Australia, Great Britain and the United States. Apart from its architectural excellence, the Great Synagogue provides a rich townscape aspect to Hyde Park and is an iconic building of Elizabeth and Castlereagh Streets. (Phillips 2000 & HO 2004)
Date significance updated: 12 Aug 04
Note: There are incomplete details for a number of items listed in NSW. The Heritage Division intends to develop or upgrade statements of significance and other information for these items as resources become available.

Description

Designer/Maker: Thomas Rowe
Builder/Maker: Aaron Loveridge (stonework)
Construction years: 1874-1878
Physical description: The Great Synagogue consists of two main sections: the original synagogue (house of worship) with ladies’ gallery, at the Elizabeth Street end, and a five storey modern section at the Castlereagh Street end behind the facade of the original Beadle’s residence. The original eclectic design in Victorian Free Gothic style was described at the time of consecration as Byzantine interspersed with Gothic elements. The Elizabeth Street frontage and towers are of Pyrmont stone, and the remainder of the early structure is brick with cast-iron columns and timber floors, and a slate roof. The Castlereagh Street facade is stone at ground floor level, with rendered brickwork above. The interior is elaborately decorated with moulded plaster, carved timber and stained glass, all embellished with abstract patterns to avoid representation of living forms. Surviving timber stairs at the Elizabeth Street end have strongly carved balustrades. Walls are painted with gold leaf highlights, and the furniture is mostly of polished timber and brass. Some original colour schemes survive, notably on the ceiling of the Elizabeth Street porch, while the midnight blue ceiling with gold leaf stars has been repainted to the original design several times. Timber floors are raked at both ground and gallery levels, and the centre section of the ground floor and Ark steps, like the porch, are ornately tiled in tessellated and mosaic work. The basement contains a hall which has steel portal frames supporting the columns and floor above, and also contains the A M Rosenblum Museum and Rabbi Falk Library. The modern section, constructed of reinforced concrete, contains offices, classrooms and meeting rooms, together with a lift and fire stairs, and has a top floor with an openable roof. The modern stained glass windows in the Castlereagh Street facade were designed by Louis Kahan of Melbourne. The building contains notable examples of venerable sacred scrolls and religious artefacts, including a menorah (nine-branched candelabrum) made by Rabbi L A Falk. (Phillips 1975)
Physical condition and/or
Archaeological potential:
The condition of the building is generally good, although the upper sections of stonework require maintenance (1997). There is unlikely to be much archaeological potential owing to the excavations for new sections of the building in the 1950s and 1980s.
Date condition updated:22 Aug 01
Modifications and dates: 1911 - choir gallery moved from east to west end, western semi-circular apse made square, reading desk moved from centre to western end and rebuilt to incorporate pulpit, and extra seats installed in centre block. Architects Kent & Budden. Little intrusion, although some impact on original, highly traditional synagogue plan.
1910s - gasoliers converted to electric light. Little intrusion.
1940s - eastern wheel window strengthened internally with reinforced concrete. Some intrusion internally.
1957 - basement deepened and reconstructed as War Memorial Hall. Architect Orwell Phillips. Some intrusion, although the previous basement area appears to have been of little significance.
1981 - western section rebuilt behind original facade as Education Centre. Architects Orwell Phillips and David Nathan. Some intrusion mostly in less significant areas, except for the replacement of original timber stairs with concrete fire stairs.
1987 - stonework conserved and interiors decorated with stencilling, some based on early patterns found. Sprinkler system installed. Minimal intrusion.
Further information: One of the the State significant items used at the launch of the State Heritage Inventory.

6/2006: more than $310,000 approved to assist works to the interior - The project includes: restoration works to the interior of the building, reintroduction of natural ventilation, and conservation work to the suspended and wall-mounted gasoliers. (www.deh.gov.au/minister/env/2006/mr22jun06.html)
Current use: Synagogue
Former use: Synagogue

History

Historical notes: The Great Synagogue was built to unite two Jewish congregations in Sydney which worshipped at the time in synagogues in York Street and Macquarie Street. (The York Street Synagogue had been designed in the Egyptian style by James Hume and built in 1844.) The first moves were made in 1864 towards obtaining a suitable site for a new, larger synagogue. In 1871 a meeting was held at York Street to discuss buying land available in Elizabeth Street. It was suggested a meeting be held with the Macquarie Street Synagogue to unite in purchasing the land for a synagogue to serve the whole community. John Solomon, a builder, purchased the land at auction for 2000 pounds in 1871 and held it until the congregation could raise sufficient funds. The proposal was for a synagogue and educational facilities for the less wealthy members of the congregation. The money was to be raised by sale of land in Kent Street which had been granted for a Jewish school but never used. Further money was raised by the sale of the York and Macquarie Street properties. An appeal was also launched to fund the new building, accompanied by a photograph of the New London Synagogue (subsequently destroyed by bombing in 1941) which was intended to serve as the model for the Sydney building. The architect, Thomas Rowe, was selected in 1872 by means of a limited competition, the other competitors being G A Mansfield and Benjamin Backhouse. Rowe also acted as the construction manager for the new building. The building of the synagogue was also partly supervised by the Princes Road Synagogue, Liverpool and the New West End Synagogue, London. The foundation stone was laid in January 1875 by Saul Samuel, Postmaster General, later to be the first Jewish minister of the Crown in the British Empire. A huge bazaar was held in December 1875 to raise extra funds.

The principal contractor for stonework was Aaron Loveridge, founder of the modern firm of Loveridge & Hudson. The contract drawings by Rowe, and signed by Loveridge, are held by Sydney’s Mitchell Library. Other notable firms connected with the work were William Coleman (carpentry and joinery), Fletcher Brothers (decorative cast iron), Lewis and Steel (decorative plaster), Cornelius and Co of Philadelphia (gas fixtures), Minton Hollins & Co (tiles), P N Russell & Co (cast iron columns), and Lyon & Cottier (stained and etched glass).

The synagogue was consecrated on 4 March 1878, but its decoration was not completed until 1883. (Phillips 1975) (Bersten 1995) . At the time of completion the synagogue was the most imposing building in Elizabeth Street and was one of the first large Victorian buildings erected in Sydney and reflected civic pride and prosperity. The Great Synagogue is the mother church of Australian Jewry and still maintains a register of all births, marriages and deaths which have taken place since the first entry was made on 1 November 1826. It also houses a museum which attracts much interest as does the library. The synagogue is involved with festivals in Sydney including the Festival of Sydney and the 1986 'Music on the Move' program. In 1988 the Bicentennial Council of NSW recognised the importance of the building and recommended a significant grant for restoration work on the Elizabeth Street facade. Each year many tourists visit the synagogue which features prominently in guidebooks as well as special interest groups, especially schools. (DC Application)

Historic themes

Australian theme (abbrev)New South Wales themeLocal theme
2. Peopling-Peopling the continent Ethnic influences-Activities associated with common cultural traditions and peoples of shared descent, and with exchanges between such traditions and peoples. (none)-
8. Culture-Developing cultural institutions and ways of life Religion-Activities associated with particular systems of faith and worship (none)-

Assessment of significance

SHR Criteria a)
[Historical significance]
The Great Synagogue is the earliest surviving synagogue in NSW still in use, and according to some, the earliest surviving synagogue building. (A small building in Goulburn, possibly used as a synagogue, was built some years earlier.) The Great Synagogue has considerable ecclesiastical and historic importance as it represents the Mother Congregation of Australian Jewry, which saw the merger of two separate congregations to build the present synagogue, and represents the centre of Jewish worship and culture in central Sydney since the 1870s.
SHR Criteria b)
[Associative significance]
The Great Synagogue is associated with with the mother congregation of Australian Jewry, and many leading citizens and families of the Jewish faith. It is also associated with the prominent architect Thomas Rowe, who designed several other landmark buildings in Sydney of which perhaps the best known is Sydney Hospital in Macquarie Street.
SHR Criteria c)
[Aesthetic significance]
The Great Synagogue is a major landmark of Sydney and represents one of the most elaborately decorated Victorian buildings in Sydney, internally and externally. It contains excellent examples of the best quality work in moulded plaster, carved stone, decorative tiling and stained glass. According to George Proudman, former master mason with the NSW Public Works Department, the Synagogue has some of the finest stone carving in all of Sydney. The form and construction of the building exemplify the traditional 19th century pattern of Orthodox Anglo-Jewish worship.

The building represents one of the finest works of the leading NSW architect, Thomas Rowe, in association with the architect W.L. Vernon (then in private practice) reputed to have partly supervised Thomas Rowe in the design. The design is reputed to be inspired by the Princes Road Synagogue in Liverpool and the New West End Synagogue in London - a composite Renaissance style, mainly Byzantine but with Gothic overtones, particularly apparent for the main window.
SHR Criteria d)
[Social significance]
The Great Synagogue is socially significant because it continues to be the focus of Jewish communal worship and culture in central Sydney, as it has been since its construction.
SHR Criteria e)
[Research potential]
The Great Synagogue has technical and research significance as a living museum of decorative embellishment in 19th century buildings, which contains examples of the work of many leading practitioners of the time. It also contains a number of religious scrolls, books and artefacts. The form and construction of the building exemplify the traditional 19th century pattern of Orthodox Anglo-Jewish worship.
SHR Criteria f)
[Rarity]
The Great Synagogue is remarkable for its richness and originality of decoration, coupled with the excellence of the craftsmanship. It is rare in NSW as the earliest surviving synagogue in NSW still in use, and according to some, the earliest surviving synagogue building.
SHR Criteria g)
[Representativeness]
By its prominent situation and presence in Central Sydney, its magnificent architectural grandeur, its rich symbolism, and its important collection of Hebrew documents and other religious artefacts, the Great Synagogue also embodies and demonstrates the early development and importance of the Jewish faith and culture in New South Wales during the 19th Century. The Great Synagoue has represented the centre of Jewish worship and culture in Sydney (and arguably the State) since its construction in the 1870s. Architecturally, the Great Synagogue represents one of the finest works of the leading NSW architect, Thomas Rowe, and the most elaborately decorated Victorian building in Sydney.
Integrity/Intactness: The Great Synagogue is generally intact both externally and internally in the older section fronting Elizabeth Street.
Assessment criteria: Items are assessed against the PDF State Heritage Register (SHR) Criteria to determine the level of significance. Refer to the Listings below for the level of statutory protection.

Recommended management:

Preparation of a conservation plan, taking account of the significance of the building fabric as well as the need for the Synagogue to continue to provide an appropriate setting for Jewish worship, culture and learning.

Procedures /Exemptions

Section of actDescriptionTitleCommentsAction date
57(2)Exemption to allow workStandard Exemptions SCHEDULE OF STANDARD EXEMPTIONS
HERITAGE ACT 1977
Notice of Order Under Section 57 (2) of the Heritage Act 1977

I, the Minister for Planning, pursuant to subsection 57(2) of the Heritage Act 1977, on the recommendation of the Heritage Council of New South Wales, do by this Order:

1. revoke the Schedule of Exemptions to subsection 57(1) of the Heritage Act made under subsection 57(2) and published in the Government Gazette on 22 February 2008; and

2. grant standard exemptions from subsection 57(1) of the Heritage Act 1977, described in the Schedule attached.

FRANK SARTOR
Minister for Planning
Sydney, 11 July 2008

To view the schedule click on the Standard Exemptions for Works Requiring Heritage Council Approval link below.
Sep 5 2008

PDF Standard exemptions for works requiring Heritage Council approval

Listings

Heritage ListingListing TitleListing NumberGazette DateGazette NumberGazette Page
Heritage Act - State Heritage Register 0171010 Sep 04 1437510
Heritage Act - Icons Project Nomination for SHR listing  02 Jun 04   
Local Environmental PlanCSH LEP 1 07 Apr 00   
National Trust of Australia register      
Register of the National Estate  21 Mar 78   

References, internet links & images

TypeAuthorYearTitleInternet Links
TourismAttraction Homepage2007Great Synagogue View detail
WrittenOrwell & Peter Phillips Architects2000Conservation Management Plan The Great Synagogue Sydney
WrittenRaymond Apple ; with members of the congregation2008The Great Synagogue : a history of Sydney's big Shule
WrittenThe National Trust of Australia (NSW)1975Classification Card for the Great Synagogue
TourismTourism NSW2007Great Synagogue And Am Rosenblum Jewish Museum View detail

Note: internet links may be to web pages, documents or images.

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Data source

The information for this entry comes from the following source:
Name: Heritage Office
Database number: 5051584
File number: H00/00591,S90/06045


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