Wilshire Boulevard Temple gets a facelift

After several years of heavy duty restoration, the historic Wilshire Boulevard Temple in LA’s Koreatown neighborhood is once again open. Earlier this month it offered services during the High Holy days, and this Sunday the synagogue is putting on an interfaith concert for the public.

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The center of the Wilshire Boulevard Temple dome.

The concert on Sunday is sold out, but you can stream it online here.

The renovation of the Wilshire Boulevard Temple is being overseen by Brenda Levin, the head of Levin and Associates. You’ve probably heard of some of their other big conservation projects: The Bradbury Building, Grand Central Market, The Wiltern Theater, Griffith Observatory, City Hall, and Dodger Stadium.

But for all those projects, Levin says this one has been the most complex. “Every surface that you see from this point on has either been restored or enhanced or created,” Levin said. “I think the challenge of preservation is that you need to know how to deconstruct a building and then put it back together with all of the new components to it.”

A detail of the sanctuary's stained glass windows and the mural painted by Hugo Ballin.
A detail of the sanctuary’s stained glass windows and the mural painted by Hugo Ballin.

It’s hard to overstate just how extensive the renovation of the synagogue is. New floors and carpeting were put in, the walls and ceilings were scraped of old paint and crumbling plaster, and the murals depicting Jewish history had to be restored. They were originally painted by Hollywood art director Hugo Ballin, and commissioned by the Warner brothers – one of many connections the synagogue has long had with the film industry.

One of the biggest challenges was restoring the Rose Window, an enormous stained glass masterpiece surrounded by cast stone. “This was one of the more vulnerable aspects of the building that was identified early on as a potential falling hazard, meaning the cast stone could have broken away and fallen out onto Wilshire Boulevard,” Levin said.

The newly-commissioned Memorial Wall, designed by artist Lita Albuquerque
The newly-commissioned Memorial Wall, designed by artist Lita Albuquerque.

Senior Rabbi Steven Z. Leder says it took a lot of convincing to get the board to support the renovation’s $150 million price tag. Leder didn’t want to see the temple sold and become a church. The other option was to fix up only the sanctuary and leave the hallways, schools, courtyards and offices untouched. Leder said that would be a huge mistake. “Because, that will make the sanctuary beautiful but it’ll be like a cut flower in a vase,” Leder said. “Without a root structure, it’ll look beautiful and then it will wither and die. Because there will be no community to embrace it.”

Many Jewish leaders told Leder to focus on West Los Angeles, where much of the Jewish population had shifted over the years. But Leder maintains that Jewish life on the east side of town is seeing a renaissance. He wants Wilshire Boulevard Temple to be its hub.

Architect Brenda Levin in the sanctuary of the Wilshire Boulevard Temple. Photo by Avishay Artsy.
Architect Brenda Levin in the sanctuary of the Wilshire Boulevard Temple. Photos by Avishay Artsy.

Levin says this was a very personal project. “It was a very complicated transition for me, on Rosh Hashanah, when I sat on the bimah, and was a congregant and not the architect,” Levin said. “And it was incredibly overpowering to me to watch people in the congregation just observing what had happened and experiencing the space for the first time.”

Here are some more images of the temple, courtesy of photographer Tom Bonner:

Wilshire Blvd. Temple  / Photography by Tom Bonner.  Job ID 5941

Wilshire Blvd. Temple  / Photography by Tom Bonner.  Job ID 5942

Wilshire Blvd. Temple  / Photography by Tom Bonner.  Job ID 5959

Wilshire Blvd. Temple  / Photography by Tom Bonner.  Job ID 5959