You are here
Catoma Street Church of Christ
Remarkably for a small inland city of the Deep South, this building survives today as one of the oldest extant Jewish houses of worship in the United States—a building that has outlasted more venerable specimens along the Atlantic Coast, where Judaism first took root in America. Since Montgomery’s earliest days, a small but active Jewish community has played a prominent role in business and civic life. Indeed Abraham Mordecai (1755–1850), a Jewish trader from Philadelphia and a founder of the cotton industry that would long dominate the local economy was one of its first settlers. And it was from a Montgomery cotton brokerage established by immigrant brothers Henry and Emanuel Lehman in 1850 that the international firm of Lehman Brothers of New York would eventually evolve.
By the mid-1840s several local families of German Jewish origin had banded together as a religious and benevolent society. A few years later, on April 12, 1852, they received their official charter as “Kahl [congregation] Montgomery.” But it was not until 1859, encouraged by a gift of $2,000 from New Orleans philanthropist Judah Touro, that Kahl Montgomery established a building committee and acquired a site for a synagogue. The corner lot lay three blocks from Market Street (now Dexter Avenue), Montgomery’s main business thoroughfare, in what was then a pleasant residential neighborhood.
Unsubstantiated sources credit the temple’s architectural design to John Stewart of Philadelphia, erstwhile partner of Samuel Sloan and a plausible candidate since Stewart was involved with other Montgomery area projects in this period, including the Methodist female college at Tuskegee and the imposing Montgomery mansion of Dr. William Baldwin, both now destroyed. A stone plaque set into a roundel high on the temple’s facade bears the Hebraic date of completion, “A.M. 5621” (1861), as well as the names of the supervising architect, local builder Pelham J. Anderson, the master mason, George M. Figh, and the master carpenter, David L. Cohen. Strangely, though not uncommon in this period, the plaque fails to disclose who actually furnished the design. A marked architectural similarity between Temple Beth Or and at least two other synagogues built soon afterward in Madison, Wisconsin (1863), and Evansville, Indiana (1866), has yet to be explained.
Completed at a cost of $12,000 and dedicated in March 1862, the temple was locally touted, with pardonable provincial pride, as “a perfect example of Italian Romanesque architecture.” In this preference for the neo-Romanesque—or at least a very modest and Americanized version of it— the congregation was following a popular trend in synagogue architecture on both sides of the Atlantic: one springing more immediately from the Rundbogenstil (literally “round-arched style”) adopted by many synagogues in Germany and central Europe. For an Alabama Jewish community of Germanic origin, this provided an acceptable counterpoint to the revivalist Gothic style then gaining ground in Christian architecture. At the same time, the temple’s functional layout fit comfortably into a format becoming popular among mainline American Protestants, namely, a main worship space raised above a fully developed ground floor providing space for a Sabbath school and social activities.
At Kahl Montgomery an advanced entrance pavilion, peak-roofed over an emphatically arched entrance, animates a facade enriched by a series of molded roundels. At cornice level, there is drip corbeling and relief frieze work vigorously worked out in rose-colored local brick. Bands of rustication, capped by a broad brick water table that continues around the side elevations, visually define the basement level as a sort of podium for the superstructure above. Set into rhythmically spaced blind arches rising from the belt course, a series of tiered windows—the upper openings rounded—illuminate the main worship space. Both the basement windows beneath and the main window openings now contain opaque slag glass probably installed in the 1930s. But a pair of surviving nineteenth-century windows at the rear, flanking the recess that once housed the Aron Hakodesh or Ark of the Covenant, indicate that latticed glazing once filled the main window openings as well. Surviving iron pintles affixed to the jambs suggest that shutters once protected the windows.
From Catoma Street, a double flight of handsomely railed stone steps ascends to the main entrance that leads to the worship space via a narrow vestibule. The entrance itself is now partially obscured by a metal awning added sometime in the twentieth century. Inside, winding stairs flanking the vestibule connect to classrooms below and the high gallery above, where the women and children sat during the earliest years of the congregation.
In 1873, the temple officially adopted the name “Beth Or,” or House of Light. It was also during this decade that the congregation began to embrace the practices of Reformed Judaism, which was spreading across the American heartland under the leadership of Rabbi Isaac M. Wise of Cincinnati. Thus in 1874 the bema , or pulpit, was moved from its traditional place in the center of the temple to the front or east end, near the Torah and under a small glazed roundel depicting on hand-painted glass the tablets of the Ten Commandments window as well as the All Seeing Eye. Seats for the worshippers, historically grouped around the bema, were accordingly reoriented eastward. In addition, a choir and instrumental music were introduced, and women and children were permitted to move from the gallery and join the adult male worshippers on the main floor.
In 1902, with the completion of a new and larger temple a block to the south, at Clayton and Sayre streets, the congregation sold their first house of worship to the small Church of Christ congregation, which has occupied it since that time. A low, semi-detached educational facility added to the main building in 1935 constitutes the only major addition. The urban landscape surrounding the temple, however, has changed dramatically with the demands of an expanding city and much of the area is now given over to surface parking that serves the downtown campus of the adjacent Troy University.
Benton, Jeffrey C. A Sense of Place: Montgomery’s Architectural Heritage, 1821–1951. Montgomery AL: River City Publishing, 2001.
Gamble, Robert. Historic Architecture in Alabama: A Guide to Styles and Types. Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 1990.
Stough, Durden C. A History of the Catoma Street Church of Christ, 1879–1973. Privately published, n.d.
Weil, Nellie C. 150 Years of Kahl Montgomery: Temple Beth Or—House of Light. Montgomery, AL: Privately published, 2002.
If SAH Archipedia has been useful to you, please consider supporting it.
SAH Archipedia tells the story of the United States through its buildings, landscapes, and cities. This freely available resource empowers the public with authoritative knowledge that deepens their understanding and appreciation of the built environment. But the Society of Architectural Historians, which created SAH Archipedia with University of Virginia Press, needs your support to maintain the high-caliber research, writing, photography, cartography, editing, design, and programming that make SAH Archipedia a trusted online resource available to all who value the history of place, heritage tourism, and learning.