Historic Structures

Touro Synagogue, Congregation Jeshuat Israel, Newport Rhode Island

Date added: September 14, 2010 Categories: Rhode Island Church

Touro Synagogue is perhaps Peter Harrison's most successful building. Although it presents a most severe facade to the street, the interior treatment, including carved wooden furnishings and galleries, is a rich, sophisticated work characteristic of English and Continental design of the mid-18th century.

Touro Synagogue, almost the only public building in Newport to survive the Revolution undamaged, served as the meeting place for the Rhode Island General Assembly and for sessions of the Supreme Court of Rhode Island, 1781-1784, General George Washington attended a Town meeting in the synagogue March 13, 1781. After his election as President, Washington returned to Newport, August 17, 1790. On the occasion of his departure, all clergy and representatives of various organizations presented addresses to the newly elected President. Moses Seixas, the representative of the Congregation, presented his address. In response to this letter, Washington wrote, "... For happily the Government of the United States which gives bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance, requires only that they who live under its protection, should demean themselves as good citizens, in giving it on all occasions their effectual support..." With the death and emigration of many of the members of the Congregation, the synagogue was used only for special services from the 1820's until it was reopened in 1883. During this time, the Congregation Shearith Israel, New York City, became the trustees of the building and property. Maintenance was made possible by the establishment of the Touro Jewish Synagogue Fund by the will of Abraham Touro, son of the first rabbi. This fund, given to the State of Rhode Island, was administered by the City of Newport. See Acts of the General Assembly of Rhode Island, June, 1823, and Newport Common Council Records, 1822-1883. Another son, Judah Touro, left a further amount to pay a salary for a reader and to maintain the cemetery. See Newport Common Council Book No. 1, pp. 113-117. June 11, 1855.

The following is a description taken from Ezra Stiles' Diary:
"December 2, 1763. Friday. In the Afternoon was the dedication of the new Synagogue in this Town. It began by a handsome procession in which were carried the Books of the Law, to be deposited in the Ark. Several Portions of Scripture and of their Service with a Prayer for the Royal Family, were read and finely sung by the priest and People. There were present many Gentlemen and Ladies. The Order and Decorum, the Harmony and Solemnity of the Musick, together with a handsome Assembly of People, in an Edifice the most perfect of the Temple kind perhaps in America and splendidly illuminated, could not but raise in the Mind a faint Idea of the Majesty and Grandeur of the Ancient Jewish Worship mentioned in Scripture.

Dr. Isaac de Abraham Touro performed the Service. The Synagogue is about perhaps fourty foot long and 30 wide, of Brick on a Foundation of Free Stone; it was begun about two years ago, and is now finished except the Porch and the Capitals of the Pillars. The Front representation of the holy of holies, or its Partition Veil, consists only of wainscotted Breast Work on the East End, in the lower part of which four long Doors cover an upright Square Closet the depth of which Is about a foot or the thickness of the Wall, and in this Apartment (vulgarly called the Ark) were deposited three copies and Rolls of Pentateuch, written on Vellum or rather tanned Calf Skin: one of these Rolls I was told by Dr. Touro was presented from Amsterdam and is Two Hundred years old, the letters have the Rabbinical Flourishes.

A Gallery for the Women runs around the whole inside, except the East End, supported by Columns of Ionic order, over which are placed correspondent columns of the Corinthian order supporting the Ceiling of the Roof the Depth of the Corinthian Pedestal is the height of the Balustrade which runs around the Gallery. The pulpit for Reading of the Law, is a raised Pew with an extended front table; this placed about the center of the Synagogue or nearer the West End being a square embalustraded comparting with the length of the Indented Chancel before and at the Foot of the Ark.

On the middle of the North Side and Affixed to the Wall is a raised Seat for the Parnas or Ruler, and for the Elders; the Breast and Back interlaid with Chinese Mosaic Work. A Wainscotted Seat runs around the Side of the Synagogue below and another in the Gallery. There are no other Seats or Pews. There may be Eighty Souls of Jews or 15 families now in Town. The Synagogue has already cost Fifteen Hundred Pounds Sterling. There are to be five Lamps pendant from a lofty Ceiling."

Alterations and additions: By 1827-1829, much repair work had to be completed. The exterior brick walls were painted at this time. On the interior, rotted paneling and crumbling plaster were replaced and painted for the first time. The ark dates from this period. A decorative cornice was removed from the school in the 19th century. It has since been replaced. The basement under the school building to the north has been modernized. A furnace has been installed in an underground vault on the east side of a north-south hall which runs adjacent to the west foundation wall. A program of complete restoration was undertaken between 1957 and 1963, with advisement from the National Park Service.

Overall dimensions: About 39 feet by 45 feet with a north wing, 28 feet by 16 feet; rectangular main block; two story.

Floor plan: The west center entrance doors open into a two-story, rectangular space. Two side aisles skirt the centrally located, raised bema. These aisles terminate at the raised, two-step, rectangular platform on the east wall. The north and south walls are divided into six bays, each marked by a wooden column which supports the gallery. The west wall composition is divided by two gallery-supporting columns which flank the entrance. The three-bay wing to the north, containing the women's entrance, has an open room on the first floor with a stairway located on the south wall. The stairway leads to the gallery entrance on the south wall of the second floor. There is a single room to the north which opens from the second-floor stair hall.