Congregation Beth El

Michigan's oldest synagogue in continuous use since 1885



beth el addition sketchWhat do you do when you have a historic building that needs to be brought into the 21st century?

That dilemma faced the members of Congregation Beth El in Traverse City. The 126-year-old congregation meets in the oldest synagogue building in continuous use in Michigan. Maintaining its historic integrity has been a priority.

Yet, accessibility wasn't top of mind when it was built in the 19th century. That prohibited some members, as well as some who would like to be, from attending services.

"We have many aging congregants and members of the community whose disabilities prevent them from climbing stairs," said Terry Tarnow, Beth El president.

Working with Traverse City architect Robert Holdeman, the congregation has decided to build a small addition on the back corner that will not jeopardize Beth El's Michigan Historic Site designation. The $170,000 renovation will include a lift, handicap-accessible bathroom and new stairway.

"It has been a bit of a challenge with a historic building like this," said Traverse City architect Robert Holdeman, co-owner of AAI Inc. "The Michigan Historical Society has some very strong feelings about how architecture should be applied to an historic building."

While interior alterations to a historic structure should aim to match existing materials, that's not the case for exterior additions, Holdeman said.

"They want the new portion to actually not blend with the existing, but to be an obvious new addition so that someone looking at it can see what is new and what is the historical building," said Jessica VanHouzen Stroud, also an architect at AAI.

The other challenge at Congregation Beth El was its small site plan.

"It's a small building on a small site, and we didn't want to disrupt the look of the interior when adding the door for the elevator so it doesn't disrupt from the original design," said VanHouzen Stroud.

Congregation members pledged $50,000 toward construction, with an additional $50,000 coming from its building fund. They're looking for the balance to come from private donors and foundations.