By ALAN SMASON, Exclusive to the CCJN
For the first time in 93 years, the interior structure of the sanctuary at Temple Sinai is undergoing extensive and necessary emergency repairs. The $1.4 million capital campaign still being conducted is part of a larger $3 million goal for the 150th anniversary of the Uptown Reform temple.
The repairs were initially necessitated due to the antiquated air conditioning system, whose engine bearings had worn down to the point of eminent failure, according to synagogue president Tracey Dodd.
The air conditioning unit had to be be replaced immediately, but that was only the beginning, she said.
“Not only did we have to replace the air conditioning unit, we had the electrical that had to be replaced to service the unit,” Dodd explained in speaking to the CCJN in a telephone interview about the litany of repairs now underway.
Most jarring to observers is the 45-foot tall scaffolding that currently fills the interior of the sanctuary from ground to ceiling as the old, inefficient lighting system is being replaced with a modern LED lighting system. Dodd explained that the older lighting system had not accounted for high humidity at the height of the ceiling, which significantly contributed to the heat loading of the building from the older, inefficient incandescent lights.
By reducing the heat load and putting in moisture controls, the temple was able to replace the existing two older air conditioning units with a more efficient 110-ton unit. The new unit, which has been delayed in shipment due to the COVID-19 slowdown, will arrive at the building and be lifted by crane in the coming weeks, Dodd added.
“We took down the entire head house and basically reinforced the roof to put back a bigger unit,” she said.
The four Tiffany chandeliers and the ner tamid (eternal light) that hung in the sanctuary are being cleaned and refitted with new electrical wiring, which will bring them up to code. A short circuit a year ago on one of the chandeliers alerted the board to the prospect that similar failures could affect the other chandeliers at any moment.
Research on the chandeliers indicates that synagogue architect Emile Weil designed them and the ner tamid (eternal light) and assigned the intricate work to the design studio of Louis Comfort Tiffany of New York. Dodd said that this was the only known instance of a Ner Tamid being designed by the historic firm whose lamps are highly prized by collectors.
“Tiffany never made another ner tamid,” Dodd stated.
Research yielded a 1928 Southern Architecture magazine article that trumpeted the dedication of the Reform temple and specifically noted the four Tiffany chandeliers and eternal light.
Marie Wolf, the wife of former temple president Bob Wolf was Weil’s granddaughter and corroborated years after the dedication that the famous glass designer had accepted her grandfather’s commission.
As an architect, Weil is famously recalled as the designer of the original Congregation Beth Israel and Congregation Anshe Sfard (Orthodox) synagogues on Carondelet Street as well as the expansive Reform temples of Touro Synagogue and Temple Sinai.
When completed the 150th Anniversary Campaign will institute a permanent maintenance endowment, upgrades for the upstairs portion of the building that houses the Sunday School and the kitchen. In addition an “augmented” security system with exterior perimeter cameras is being planned.
“I was hopeful that we would bring it in for our estimated amount until we blew an underground conduit two weeks ago,” Dodd noted in talking about her budget.
No sooner had the new electrical system been put into place on the Calhoun side of the building and the power connected, the conduit began to smoke.
“It destroyed 300 feet of underground cabling, which was, unfortunately, something that we had to deal with, because even though it came from an Entergy connection, that was our line and that new power source caused it to fail. That was our first run-in with problems,” Dodd explained.
Moses Engineering has been consulting Temple Sinai throughout the project and while solar power is still being considered as a possible choice for its future energy needs, the synagogue has so effectively lowered its use and energy footprint with these new air conditioning and lighting systems that it will qualify for several Entergy tax credits.
“This is the biggest project we’ve undertaken in a while,” Dodd concluded. “This is the first phase. We’ve got another phase of capital needs that bring our capital project plan to a $3 million need, which is very difficult to do in this time period when so many people are struggling.”