Anshei Sfard to appeal city’s historic designation

Over the objections of the 35-member congregation, the Louisville Metro Historic Landmarks and Preservation District Commission voted 5-4 on March 22 to designate the Anshei Sfard synagogue as a historic landmark.
The designation makes it significantly harder for a developer to buy the property, raze the synagogue and build a new commercial or residential complex in its place – something prospective buyers have been interested in doing.
“They would have to exhibit economic hardship in order to demolish the building,” said Will Ford, communications specialist for Develop Louisville.
The designation will take effect 60 days from the date of the commission’s action unless Metro Council declares it will review the issue. If that happens, then council has 180 days to act.
“Anshe Sfard does intend to file an appeal,” said Myrle Davis, an attorney and member of the congregation’s board of trustees.
The decision leaves a whiff of uncertainty over Kentucky’s only Orthodox Jewish congregation as it prepares to move to temporary digs in Shalom Towers by the end of the month. In time, its members hope to find or build a smaller permanent synagogue that fits their needs.
But first, it must sell the building it has called home for more than 70 years.
Davis said the aging congregation simply cannot maintain the synagogue with the resources it has.
“It really would really be a devastating blow and could lead to the end of Orthodoxy in Kentucky,” she said. “Our survival depends on selling this building.”
But Steve Porter, the attorney representing more than 200 petitioners who want to preserve the synagogue, ticked off several reasons why it should be saved:
• It’s a “classic example” of Mid-Century Modern architecture, a post-World War II style.
• Its stained-glass windows were designed with an epoxy that is longer lasting than a method previously used to hold glass hunks together.
• It was designed by Joseph and Joseph Architects, a well-known Louisville firm composed of Jewish principals.
• It was a result of the Jewish community’s migration from downtown to the East End in the 1950s, creating the current campus on Dutchmans Lane.
“This was the only synagogue that was right on the campus,” Porter said. “We think it’s an example of the movement of Jewish culture from downtown. You put all that together, and we think the building has great historical, cultural and architectural significance.”
Founded in 1892, Anshe Sfard has moved more than once in its history, from a “dimly lit upstairs meeting hall,” as its website describes its first location at the corner of 7th and Market streets, to the old Temple Brith Sholom at 511 S. First St.
By 1955, the then 150-member congregation left its old synagogue, which was condemned to make way for the North-South Expressway (I-65) and moved to the East End where it had built its current synagogue on the JCC campus.
Over the years, the congregation has declined. Its remaining families are mostly seniors, including widows and widowers.
Donald Cox, the attorney representing Anshei Sfard, did not not return calls from Community, but he previously told the Courier-Journal that the congregation needs to downsize.
They still can, Porter said.
“They still own the building and land,” he said. “They can sell the building; it doesn’t have to remain a synagogue. The interior can be totally renovated. A landmarking only protects the exterior of the building. They have a lot of land there … and it can be sold.”
Porter noted that the designation only protects the synagogue, its attached school and the mikvah. The garage and two houses the congregation also owns are not protected.
Any buyer who acquires the property then tries to develop it, he added, would face stiff opposition from the neighbors who object to the increased traffic congestion such a project would bring.
That opposition played a big role in scuttling the last attempt to buy the property. Houston-based developer Bomasada pulled out of the deal this past October. Its president and COO, John Gilbert, said that he didn’t get “the warm and fuzzies” from the city.
“The neighbors came out strongly and not because of landmarking,” Porter said. “But the possible use [of the property] as a nursing home or something like that, I think the community would accept without a problem.”

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