The Jewish Historical Society of Greater Washington’s museum, long slated for expansion, is beginning its transformation into a large museum complex.
Plans call for the project’s main component, the Lillian and Albert Small Jewish Museum, to become part of Capitol Crossing, a mixed-use development that will reconnect the east end of downtown Washington. Work on the project begins this month, with full construction starting later this year.
Developer Property Group Partners first approached the historical society because its Fourth Street office and historic building were located in the middle of the planned project, according to Laura Apelbaum, the society’s executive director.
An agreement with the developer was signed several years ago to relocate the museum and turn it into something more than a small historic building, which Apelbaum says isn’t big enough to hold an exhibit and tell a full story.
“We were developing plans all along to expand,” Apelbaum says. “The location of the synagogue was problematic [for the developers], and they proposed the idea of moving the synagogue. It’s an once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.”
The museum was originally the home of the old Adas Israel synagogue. Built in 1876, the small building later served as a grocery store and was slated for demolition. In 1969, it was famously cut in half and wheeled three blocks on a dolly to Third and G Streets, N.W., where it stands today.
The new location of the synagogue, which will be at Third and F streets, will allow it to regain its original orientation, which faced east toward Jerusalem.
The society has also received adjacent land to house more museum functions.
“In the new location, the old building will be able to tell its own story about the immigrant roots in the community and how we started as a community,” Apelbaum says. “In the adjacent galleries, we can flesh out a fuller story beyond the neighborhood. The old building reflects early roots. Other spaces will tell other stories.”
Along with the old synagogue and walking tours, the society is known for exhibits such as Voices of the Vigil, which showcases memoirs and photographs of D.C.’s Soviet Jewry movement. The exhibit is on view at Washington Hebrew Congregation and will move to the Jewish Community Center of Greater Washington in September.
With more space, the museum plans to have three exhibits on display, Apelbaum says. One will be the core exhibition, which tells the origins of the Washington Jewish community. The other two will be a youth/family gallery and a space featuring temporary exhibits from other museums focusing on Jewish history.
With a larger venue, the museum will be able to bring more exhibits to town, adds Apelbaum, who had to pass up an exhibit on Jewish life during the Civil War that recently came to Baltimore due to lack of space.
“A lot of institutions don’t have the space you need to show objects,” she says. “We’ll be able to create more of an environment and a whole panoply of new museum techniques.”
Sam Brylawski, the historical society’s president, figures that the new museum and its potential exhibits will attract many visitors.
“To have a museum that features our heritage and place in the country, it would be a benefit for everyone,” he says. “It’s going to be a cultural destination in our nation’s capital.”
The 2.2 million-square-foot, $1.3 billion Capitol Crossing development will also house five buildings zoned for retail, office and residential space.
While it’s estimated that it will take two years to build the project, Apelbaum says it’s too early to tell when the new museum will be open to the public.
CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story incorrectly reported the cost of the Capitol Crossing project.
— Ian Zelaya