Temple Adath Israel is an exuberant and eclectic mix of Gothic and Moorish revivals. Built in 1877–1878, this diminutive structure is an example of the architectural fashion for Moorish-inspired synagogues then popular in both the United States and Europe.
The Jewish community settled in Owensboro, an important trade hub along the Ohio River, before the Civil War. A Hebrew Benefit and Burial Society was established in the late 1850s and a cemetery purchased in 1862. Before building their synagogue, the Jews of Owensboro held services in private or rented quarters. Other, larger, Jewish communities along the Ohio River included Cincinnati, Ohio, Louisville and Paducah in Kentucky, and Evansville in Indiana.
A number of Owensboro’s Jewish citizens had emigrated from Central Europe, which may explain why the congregation chose this particular style for the facade of the synagogue. Moorish Revival synagogues in Europe had recently been built in Vienna, Munich, Budapest, and Prague. Closer to home, Kentuckians could have seen Moorish Revival synagogues such as the Plum Street Temple in Cincinnati (1865) and Nashville’s Vine Street Synagogue (1874). Paducah’s Temple Israel of 1893, designed by Brinton B. Davis, included massive onion domes atop an eclectic Moorish-Romanesque Revival facade. Those domes were removed in the 1930s.
The architect of Temple Adath Israel is unknown. The synagogue was built to seat approximately 200, a number that far exceeded the Jewish community of 1877 Owensboro. It was reported to have cost $8,000.
Temple Adath Israel is a one-story, one-room brick building. Pilasters divide the facade into three bays and the long sides of the building into four bays. The simple facade is further unified by a water table below the windows and a continuous cornice line at the top of the pilasters. Each bay contains a full story lancet window, the stained glass for which was imported from Germany at an unknown date. Above the front door and pointed arch window is a brick bearing the inscription “1878” and Hebrew text from Psalm 118:20 that translates to “This is the gateway to the Lord, they shall enter through it.”
The cast-iron parapet is a delightfully original confection, the genesis for which can be traced to the Moresque details of Owen Jones’s Grammar of Ornament of 1856. The central bay of the parapet features three ogee arches rising above circular disks that, in turn, rise above decorative merlons of various heights. Across the parapet four miniature onion domes rise up from octagonal shafts that are decorated with elongated inset horseshoe arches.
The interior of Temple Adath Israel is far more staid than the exterior decoration might suggest. The hall is a single-span space with a cove ceiling that is brightly lit by stained glass lancet windows decorated with Judaic motifs. Pews accommodate 200 people. The ark and organ are presumed to date from the foundation of the synagogue in 1878. The synagogue still serves the community of Owensboro and is open to the public.
Thacker, Glenda, “Historic Resources of Owensboro,” Daviess County, Kentucky. National Register of Historic Places Inventory-Nomination Form, 1986. National Park Service, U.S. Department of the Interior, Washington, DC.
Weissbach, Lee Shai. The Synagogues of Kentucky: Architecture and History. Lexington, KY: University Press of Kentucky, 1995.