2018-11-29 / Front Page

Touro Synagogue Celebrates 255th Anniversary

By Ross Sinclair Cann, AIA

Placing the bema (or reading platform) in the middle of the synagogue is typical of Sephardic synagogues such as Touro, Peter Harrison’s third Newport building. Placing the bema (or reading platform) in the middle of the synagogue is typical of Sephardic synagogues such as Touro, Peter Harrison’s third Newport building. Newport is home to Touro Synagogue, the oldest surviving synagogue in the United States. On Sunday, Dec. 2, from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m., the synagogue will celebrate the 255th anniversary of its original opening on Dec. 2, 1763. The congregation will welcome visitors to see the synagogue’s magnificent interior, explore the exhibits at the visitor’s center and enjoy refreshments on the patio. This event is free and open to the public.

The structure was designed by Peter Harrison, one of the first architects to work on designs independent of the construction in the American Colonies. Harrison was also the designer of other important Colonial Era structures, including the Redwood Library (1739-'42) and the Brick Market (1761-'72).

It is believed that he emigrated from England around 1740 at age 24, but returned for a time to be trained to teach architecture in one of the studios maintained by the English gentry. At that time in England, the “Neo-Palladian” style was sweeping away medieval styles, which had long dominated.

This new style was based on designs done nearly 200 years earlier by Venetian architect Andrea Palladio, who was emulating the classical architectural forms of Rome and Greece of nearly 2,000 years previous to that.

Harrison is often credited as being the first American architect because he was perhaps the first to be taught architecture and to have his designs built by others. This was a large change from the design/builders such as Richard Munday or Asher Benjamin, who dominated church and public building construction during the better part of the 18th century.

Touro Synagogue is the only one of Harrison’s works that has been essentially unmodified by later additions or renovations. The exterior of the building is surprisingly austere, being a simple cube with a pyramidal roof. The only decorative features on the exterior are the dark sandstone band that belts the structure and the ornate neo-Palladian porch that hints at the far more elaborate and articulated interior hidden within.

The interior, through its magnificence, somehow gives the illusion of being larger than the simple box that contains it. As Ron Onorato observed in his recent AIA guide to Newport, the building is almost a metaphor for Jewish life in the 18th century; richly lived on the inside, but modest and unpretentious on the exterior.

Although there is a lack of primary resource materials, Harrison purportedly designed the synagogue without ever having seen one. As was often done in that era, he may have gone to his extensive library and found some designs of synagogues built in Holland and carefully studied those to use as models for the interior design. He certainly drew from books in his designs of the Redwood and Brick Market.

Touro Synagogue is not only an important work of architecture, but is a tangible reminder of the high degree of freedom of religion that flourished in Newport during the 18th century. At the time when Quakers and others were being persecuted in states as close as Massachusetts, houses of worship from numerous disparate faiths were built nearly side-by-side in the area around Washington Square, which was the heart of the Newport settlement.

Each year, the congregation celebrates the open-mindedness that allowed Touro Synagogue to flourish in Newport with a reading of a letter proclaiming the ideals of religious tolerance that was written to the Newport congregation by George Washington at a time when the faith was often unwelcome elsewhere. This is an exceptional opportunity to see this important monument of religious history firsthand.

For information on the anniversary celebration, email tours@tourosynagogue.org or call 401-847- 4794 x207.

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