September 8, 2022

A Wake-up Call to Save the Deborah Chapel

Since 2015, scholars, preservationists, and community advocates fought to save Hartford, Connecticut’s Deborah Chapel from demolition, starting when the Hartford Preservation Alliance placed the site on its inaugural Endangered Properties List. However, this important site in Jewish American history received a further push when it was included as part of the National Trust for Historic Preservation’s 2022 America’s 11 Most Endangered Historic Places list.

Carey Shea, the co-founder of Friends of Zion Hill Cemetery and a leading advocate for the Deborah Chapel, reflected that "inclusion on the 11 Most [Endangered] list was a wake-up call for preservationists, Jewish communities, and neighborhood residents throughout Connecticut. Until the Deborah Chapel was placed on the list, I don't think folks here really understood exactly what we had and how truly unique and important it is." While the fate of the Deborah Chapel is still uncertain, the increased awareness of its plight by community stakeholders and the Hartford Preservation Alliance shows the strength of grassroots and community advocacy in preserving important historic places.

The Deborah Chapel, Hartford, Connecticut

photo by: Carey Shea

Exterior of the Deborah Chapel in Hartford, Connecticut, taken in February 2022.

Jewish Women’s History at the Deborah Chapel

As a rare and early American example of an intact Jewish funerary structure, the Deborah Chapel tells an often-overlooked story of the strong leadership of women within 19th-century Jewish religious and communal organizations.

According to architectural historian and Jewish heritage specialist Samuel D. Gruber, Ph.D., the Deborah Chapel was built in 1886 and owned by the Hartford Ladies’ Deborah Society. Founded in 1854 by German-speaking Jewish immigrants, the Deborah Society was a religious, social, and philanthropic organization that acted as the women’s auxiliary of the Chevra Kadisha, or “Holy Society,” which prepared bodies for proper burial following Jewish law.

Judaism defines the sacred ritual preparation of bodies for burial as the truest act of kindness, and this work was revered by the community and honored by this impressive building at a time when few women had their own resources or independence outside of the home. The money the Society earned from operation of the mortuary supported general philanthropy in Hartford as well Congregation Beth Israel, the oldest Jewish congregation in Hartford which moved to West Hartford in the 1930s

With the support of local funders, the Deborah Society owned and maintained the Deborah Chapel for decades, culminating in a renovation in 1939. Two years later, the Society continued to uplift the Jewish community by deeding the mortuary to Congregation Beth Israel and funding the library in the congregation’s newly constructed synagogue. Congregation Beth Israel has owned the Deborah Chapel ever since, using it for funerary purposes until about 1950 before converting the space into a caretaker’s cottage.

Advocacy Efforts to Save the Deborah Chapel from Demolition

While the Deborah Chapel sat vacant since the 1990s, the former mortuary remains a distinctive feature of Beth Israel Cemetery, Zion Hill Cemetery, and the now largely Latinx Frog Hollow neighborhood, standing as a reminder of how immigrant Jewish women helped shape the community.

In 2019 Congregation Beth Israel applied for permission to demolish the Deborah Chapel despite its national and state historic designation. At the press conference announcing the 11 Most listing, preservation expert and Hartford resident Sara Bronin commented on how "many cases of willful disinvestment occur in communities of color and low-income communities, just like…Frog Hollow” and that “rehabilitation of this chapel and of the site as a whole would signal…to our community that we are worth it.”

A stone inscription at the Deborah Chapel, taken February 22

photo by: Samuel D. Gruber, Ph.D

Inscription at the Deborah Chapel.

Advocates for saving the building—including neighborhood residents, Jewish scholars, preservation nonprofits such as Preservation Connecticut, the Connecticut State Historic Preservation Office, and the City of Hartford—are urging the owner to re-consider and work with stakeholders to envision a new use for the building or transfer ownership to another entity that would ensure its preservation. Due to its prominent and accessible location, advocates suggested adapting the mortuary into a community center, Jewish museum, caretaker cottage, office for a local organization, artisan workshop, meeting space, private residence, or grange.

Several groups have expressed interest in rehabilitating the building, and private donors seem supportive of adaptive reuse efforts. The State of Connecticut has also indicated that funding may be available, and the City of Hartford seems willing to be flexible regarding future zoning changes that may be required to save the building.

The preservation and adaptive reuse of the Deborah Chapel is far from certain, but major advancements have occurred since the 11 Most listing. Mary Falvey, the executive director of the Hartford Preservation Alliance, believes that “having the Deborah Chapel recognized as one of America's 11 Most Endangered [Historic Places] has further energized the resolve of partners who have been diligently advocating for its preservation. Knowing that our local historic gem has national importance has been a great morale booster."

News coverage of the 11 Most Endangered designation and the significance of the Deborah Chapel, including a front page story in the Hartford Courant and the first-ever televised news segment on this topic, garnered support from people who may not have previously engaged with this site.

For example, in June 2022, local teacher Susan Kirschner-Robinson submitted a letter to the editor of the Hartford Courant, advocating that “in this moment of increased antisemitism…the Deborah Chapel is an important piece of Hartford history that needs to be preserved. The threat of the demolition of the chapel will erase the active role that Jews had in the history of Hartford.”

A group of people standing together.

photo by: Nirvani Williams/New England Public Media/nepm.org

Advocates gather in front of the Deborah Chapel after the 11 Most press conference, May 2022.

Gruber and urban geographer Elissa J. Sampson also distributed an open letter about the site and the threat of demolition to Jewish scholars nationwide. Sixteen Jewish scholars from around the country signed onto the letter.

The 11 Most Endangered listing also piqued the attention of the property owner. Four weeks after the announcement, Congregation Beth Israel offered to sell the Deborah Chapel for $1 to anyone willing to move the building outside of the cemetery. While relocating the building is not an ideal option due to the importance of the mortuary’s contextualization within the historic cemetery and the Frog Hollow neighborhood, this offer indicates that the owner may be more open to alternatives to demolition.

Next Steps Towards Deborah Chapel's Preservation

Advocates for the Deborah Chapel continue to champion its preservation and capitalize on the public awareness. Prior to the 11 Most Endangered listing, in February 2022, the City of Hartford appealed the Superior Court’s decision to allow the owner to formally file for a demolition permit. Once filed, advocates would have sixty days to halt the demolition. The City’s appeal is working its way through the court system, but the 11 Most Endangered listing in May 2022 strengthened the City’s case for preserving this highly significant and National Register-listed historic building.

Already, attempts to save the Deborah Chapel illuminate the power of preservation advocacy work from the grassroots to the national level. Regardless of what happens to the Deborah Chapel in the future, this site has earned its place in preservation history thanks to the collaborative work of professional preservationists and community advocates. Hopefully, the fight to save the Deborah Chapel will mobilize others in Hartford and beyond to advocate for under-recognized but critical historic resources in their own neighborhoods.

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Emily Kahn is the Program Coordinator of the National Fund for Sacred Places at the National Trust for Historic Preservation.

ekahn@savingplaces.org

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