Charter Oak Cultural Center Kicks Off Major Renovation Project With Restoration and Installation of Historic Stained Glass Windows
Charter Oak Cultural Center, housed in one of Connecticut’s architectural jewels–the first synagogue built in Connecticut– is about to take a historic step. For over 75 years, the grand arched windows in the sanctuary, once filled with colorful stained glass, were fitted with white-frosted glass panels, a remnant of the neglect the building experienced before it came under the control of the Hartford Redevelopment Agency in the 1970s.
That changed last week when new stained glass windows were installed completing the full set of windows that adorn the sanctuary, a restoration project that began in the early 1990s. For the first time in a long time, all the windows are stained glass. Two rosette windows on the face of the building, which had been covered by cement for at least 50 years, are once again visible. The rosettes are being dedicated to the memory of Elliot Ginsberg, beloved Hartford leader who died of ALS in 2020. “The rosettes will be illuminated at night, watching over and blessing Elliot’s beloved capitol city,” said Eva Jacobson, president of Charter Oak’s board.
Stained Glass Resources in Hampden, MA has been supervising the painstaking restoration and installation efforts. One of the newly restored windows is a gift from Jon Newman and Ann Leventhal, and the other is a gift from the Hoffman Family of Hoffman Auto.
Rabbi Donna Berman, Executive Director of the Charter Oak Cultural Center, said, “We are proud and exuberant to be able to begin to bring the sanctuary of this historic synagogue back to its original beauty. We couldn’t think of a better way to start the full renovation of our beautiful home. We wanted to signal our deep and abiding respect for this historic and holy space and the sanctuary it provides for the arts.”
The building that now houses Charter Oak Cultural Center was the original home of Congregation Beth Israel. They commissioned famed architect George Keller, known for the Soldiers and Sailors Memorial arch in Bushnell Park, to build Connecticut’s first synagogue in 1876. Once Congregation Beth Israel left the building to settle into its new (and current) home on Farmington Avenue, Calvary Baptist Church occupied the space, until the building was abandoned in the 1970s.
By the late 70s, left open and empty, the City of Hartford planned to demolish it. A small group of Jewish leaders mobilized to save this Hartford gem. The group formed the Charter Oak Temple Restoration Association. They saved the building in the interest of historic preservation, but they also envisioned its use not as a house of worship, but as a neighborhood center. They wanted to reaffirm Jewish engagement in Hartford, while serving a multi-ethnic urban neighborhood that would become a cornerstone of the downtown revival. They wanted the building and the institution it would become to be a vital part of the downtown revival.
The beautiful building was carefully restored. The original stencil work, pews and fixtures remain. The founders’ work paid off. The building is now on the National Register of Historic Monuments. But financial pressures on the new center were hard to overcome. By 2001, when Rabbi Donna Berman took the helm at Charter Oak Cultural Center, the organization was on the verge of closing its doors forever. Donna breathed new life into Charter Oak. Under her leadership, Charter Oak Cultural Center has become one of the area’s most vibrant arts centers, the only one whose mission is explicitly to do the work of social justice through the arts. Today, Charter Oak Cultural Center is a haven for multicultural arts and the exploration of burning social issues of our day.
In 2021, Charter Oak Cultural Center announced the acquisition of 25 Charter Oak Avenue, the historic property adjacent to its existing building. In so doing, the non-profit announced that it would be expanding its campus and initiating a comprehensive upgrade to both buildings. Aside from restoration efforts, the original building at 21 Charter Oak Avenue will have its sanctuary performance space, audience seating and visual arts gallery updated and enhanced, and new HVAC systems and significant accessibility improvements. The new building at 25 Charter Oak Avenue will be transformed into classroom and meeting spaces in response to the skyrocketing demand for its Youth Arts Institute and social justice programming. Architectural and landscape designs have been developed to create a campus uniting both buildings with outdoor spaces that allow for communal gathering, gardens, public art, and performances.
For further information, please contact Rabbi Donna Berman, email@example.com