19 May 2023

The Central Synagogue in
the heart of the West End has
‘a touch of cinematic glamour’

The Central Synagogue on Great Portland Street is in the heart of London’s West End (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2023)

Patrick Comerford

In recent years, I have been visiting many of the historic synagogues in the East End of London. But it would be wrong to give the impression that the East End has the only historic synagogues in London.

The Central Synagogue, for example, is in the heart of the West End, on Great Portland Street and Hallam Street, mid-way between Oxford Circus and Regent’s Park.

The Central Synagogue has been at this location, in one form or another for almost 170 years. The present synagogue was rebuilt in 1958 after the original building was destroyed in a bombing raid in 1941. But there has been a synagogue on this site since 1855, and the present synagogue, designed by the architect by C Edmund Wilford, is celebrating its 65th anniversary this year.

The story of the Central Synagogue is an part of the history of Anglo-Jewry. It has played a full part in the life and activities of the Jewish Community in London, and the archives are full of outstanding figures who have contributed to the welfare and prosperity of both the Jewish community and the wider community.

Jews began migrating to the West End at the beginning of Queen Victoria’s reign. But, until well into 19th century, Jews in the West End could only attend the long-established older synagogues in the City of London, such as the Great Synagogue in Duke’s Place. The Reform community broke this tradition in 1842 with a modest synagogue in Burton Street, Bloomsbury, that then moved to Margaret Street in 1849.

The Great Synagogue feared losing members in the West End to this new congregation, and agreed in 1850 to fund a new branch synagogue in the West End. The site selected lay behind 43-47 Great Portland Street.

The new ‘Branch Synagogue’ was consecrated in 1855. The Great Synagogue remained responsible for the administration and the supervision of religious services. Membership grew and the need for a permanent synagogue became apparent when the building proved too small and could not be extended.

A Great Synagogue subcommittee chaired by Sir Anthony de Rothschild (1810-1876) was appointed in 1866 to find a new site nearby and build afresh for 800 worshippers, with two ministers’ houses attached. They promptly secured the houses at 133-141 Great Portland Street.

The committee chose as the architect Nathan Solomon Joseph (1834-1909), son-in-law of Dr Nathan Marcus Adler, Chief Rabbi and founder of the United Synagogue. Joseph is regarded as ‘the most prominent of the first generation of Anglo-Jewish synagogue architects,’ and his other works include the Great Victoria Street Synagogue, Belfast (1870), the Garnethill Synagogue, Glasgow (1878), and the United Synagogue Cemetery, Willesden (1873-1874). He was a social reformer and from its foundation he was the architect to the Guinness Trust.

The foundation stone of the first synagogue on the present site was laid on 18 March 1869 by Baron Lionel de Rothschild (1808-1879), and it was named the ‘Central Synagogue’. The construction of the ornate building was completed in a year, and the Central Synagogue was consecrated by Chief Rabbi Adler on 7 April 1870. It was established as an independent congregation on its present site in Great Portland Street.

Nathan Solomon Joseph drew up a Moorish design in 1867, arguing that Gothic and Classical styles were both unsuitable, whereas the Moresque was well adapted to an ‘ecclesiastical’ building yet had advantages of ‘elasticity’ and economy. He was asked to present an alternative Italianate version, but the original was preferred, with modifications. That synagogue was built to his design in 1869-1870.

The Central Synagogue was described as the first thoroughly Oriental-style synagogue, not just in Britain but beyond, although descriptions of it bring to mind the Jerusalem Synagogue and the Spanish Synagogue in Prague and the Great Synagogue om Dohany Street, Budapest. The Great Portland Street front was an eccentric confection in brick and two types of stone, culminating at the north end in a tower-like feature over an entrance porch with a horseshoe arch.

The interior, spacious, high and light, faced south like the present building, culminating in a richly decorated apsidal space for the Holy Ark or Aron haKodesh. Windows and arches were round-headed, with an orientalising horseshoe profile above the arches over the galleries, and round clerestory lights incorporating Star-of-David tracery.

Cast-iron columns, painted at first and marble-clad from 1876, carried the galleries and roof, which was divided by ribs. The rabbis’ houses at the back on 36-40 Hallam Street survive, and their two-tone brickwork and Moorish detail having a hint of the Mezquita or Great Mosque in Cordoba.

Embellishments took place over the years, the grandest being the replacement of the central almemar with an elaborate new one in marble, presented in 1928 by the 2nd Lord Bearsted in memory of his parents. Joseph’s original almemar (or bimah) was moved to the Margate synagogue.

The synagogue was destroyed in bombing on 10 May 1941. A year earlier, permission had been granted for it to be used as an assembly centre for temporary refuge for people whose homes had been destroyed. Fortunately, no one was in the building at the time.

A temporary synagogue with 550 seats was built in 1946, and the congregation returned to the site in 1948.

A menorah and inscription over the Great Portland Street entrance to the Central Synagogue in London (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2023)

It was decided in May 1955 to rebuild a fine permanent replacement synagogue on the original site, and building work began on 4 February 1956. As the new building was being planned, there were pressures from the United Synagogue to abandon the proposals in favour of a new synagogue being planned at Marble Arch.

However, the Great Universal Stores magnate Sir Isaac Wolfson (1897-1991) and his son, the philanthropist Leonard Wolfson (1927-2010), Lord Wolfson, lived in Portland Place. They offered £25,000 towards rebuilding the Central Synagogue, which meant that, with war-damage compensation, the new building would cost the congregation very little.

The foundation stone of the new Central Synagogue was laid by Sir Isaac Wolfson and the new Central Synagogue was consecrated by the Chief Rabbi, Dr Israel Brodie, on 23 March 1958.

The present synagogue was designed by C Edmund Wilford & Sons in 1956-1958, who was appointed the architect at the suggestion of Leonard Wolfson. Wilford had made a name with cinemas before World War II. He had no known connection with the Jewish community, but may have worked for the Wolfsons’ company, Great Universal Stores.

Wilford and his assistants were directed to look at synagogues in London and perhaps also Venice. T Tersons Ltd built a conventional, dignified building in 1956-1958 that corresponded closely with its predecessor but it also had what has been described as ‘an internal touch of cinematic glamour.’

The Great Portland Street façade is mainly clad in Portland stone, but the plinth and the columns flanking the high and hooded windows are of red Swedish granite. At the north end, the entrance doors are set back in a high frame clad in gold mosaic. There is also an entrance on Hallam Street that now serves as the principal entrance.

The galleried interior gives a powerful impression of height and restrained opulence. The focus is on the ark at the south end, which stands in an outer surround of red mosaic embellished by flanking lions on tall pillars of gold and an inner frame of Sienna marble. The bronze doors on the Aron haKodesh or Holy Ark and other bronze work was made by the Brent Metal Company, and is strong, spiky and characteristically 1950s. The other main feature is the almemar or bimah, clad in red marble, with attached panels carved in low relief.

Over a 15-year period, the synagogue windows were filled with colourful glass made by Lowndes & Drury to designs by David Hillman. There is a hall below the worship area, and the circulation spaces including the stairs to the galleries are generous.

A centenary service on 22 November 1970 was conducted by the Emeritus Chief Rabbi, Sir Israel Brodie, Rabbi Cyril Shine and the Revd Simon Hass. A special service was held in 2008 to mark the Golden Jubilee of the reconsecration of the Central Synagogue.

The Central Synagogue holds regular weekday and Shabbat services, as well as a range of social events throughout the year. Non-members must pre-book for services.

The Central Synagogue is keen to build up a strong young community again, and recently introduced a new children’s service format so that children of all ages are catered for. There are special services next week, from 25 to 27 May to celebrate Shavuot.

Shabbat Shalom

The Central Synagogue on Great Portland Streetis said to have ‘an internal touch of cinematic glamour’ (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2023)

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