By an overwhelming margin, Louisville Metro Council overturned the landmark designation for Anshei Sfard synagogue Thursday, clearing away a major hurdle to the sale of the five-acre property to the Jewish Community of Louisville.
The JCL hopes to make the synagogue property at 3700 Dutchmans Lane part of larger, modern Jewish campus, though no firm plans have been announced.
Council voted 21-1 with two members abstaining and two not voting to overturn the March 22 decision of the Historic Landmarks Commission, which narrowly approved the designation. The one no vote came from Councilman Brent Ackerson (D-26), in whose district the synagogue is located.
Meryl Davis, the first woman president of Anshei Sfard, Kentucky’s only Orthodox congregation, said council’s reversal of the designation represents a new beginning for her members.
“We have a chance to have a future,” she said. “The synagogue is still in existence and we have every intention of moving forward.”
Anshei Sfard had opposed the landmarking all along, claiming it impeded its efforts to sell the building and real estate, threatening the future of the 126-year-old congregation.
The members no longer worship in the synagogue, meeting for services in the nearby Shalom Towers. In time, they hope to build or buy a synagogue that better fits their needs.
Had council upheld the designation, Davis said, it would have meant “destruction” for Anshei Sfard.
But Avram Kahn, one of several petitioners for the landmark designation, criticized the vote, saying council gave no reason for overturning the commission’s ruling. He left open the possibility of a court appeal, but he also said the petitioners were willing to “negotiate.”
Jon Fleischaker, chair of the JCL Board of Trustees, hailed the ruling as a “major victory,” noting that the historic elements of the building, including its ornate windows, would be preserved, and that the mikveh directly behind the synagogue would stay open until a new ritual bath is constructed and ready for use.
He said the vote reinforces “the “sanctity” of a congregation’s right to make its own decisions about its own property.
Still, he noted that JCL’s offer for the property, which was made on the condition that the landmark designation be overturned, would not be executed as long as there is a chance for an appeal. The petitioners have 30 days to file one.
Councilwoman Barbara Sexton Smith, who proposed the resolution, said the council’s planning, zoning & annexation committee reviewed the case and determined that it did not meet five of the nine criteria for designation, and that the landmarks commission, by a 5-4 vote, approved it over the objections of the property owner.
She said that the synagogue is an example of mid-century architecture, but that the design style is “ubiquitous” and the building’s features alone are not enough to merit a landmark designation.
Council’s vote is the latest development in a story that has received national attention, including coverage by the Forward, a leading national Jewish news magazine.
Last year, a Texas developer made an offer for the property, planning to build a 268-unit apartment complex on the site, but it pulled out in the face of neighborhood opposition and lukewarm support from the city.
Speaking after the vote, JCL President and CEO Sara Klein Wagner, said she hoped the congregation and the Jewish community can now move forward.
“It’s really a big step forward for Anshei Sfard,” she said. “We’re pleased that things worked out and we look forward with our plans for a campus expansion benefitting the entire Jewish community.”