GIVEN THE THEATRICAL aspect of religious rituals, I was not surprised to learn that the primary architect of one of Seattle’s more stately spiritual edifices — originally the home for the Bikur Cholim orthodox Jewish congregation — was America’s foremost theater designer, Benjamin Marcus Priteca.
The architect of the famed West Coast playhouses built for Alexander Pantages, along with Seattle’s long-gone Coliseum and Orpheum theaters and still-surviving Admiral Theatre, Priteca was born in Scotland into a family of Eastern European Jewish heritage. He arrived in Seattle in 1909, and his architectural contributions to the Bikur Cholim synagogue came, astonishingly, when he was not yet 24. Most of his theater work lay soon ahead.
Bikur Cholim (bee-KURR hole-EEM, with a rough “h”) means “to visit and aid the sick,” with a focus on providing burial care. Organizing in the 1890s, Seattle’s Bikur Cholim congregation alighted at several sites before purchasing land at the southeast corner of 17th Avenue South and Yesler Way, the location of our “Then” image. After a lower floor took shape in 1910, Priteca designed the rest, and the structure was dedicated in 1915. The Seattle Times then termed it “the largest and most magnificent temple of worship of the Jewish faith in the West.”
Steeped in Byzantine architectural style, with tan brick and white terra-cotta details, this commanding visual landmark still looks westward from Seattle’s Central District, illustrating the power of community and how it can change.
In its initial incarnation, it hosted Bikur Cholim for some 55 years, until congregants moved south to Seward Park. For decades, it was a key destination along Seattle’s “kosher canyon” during the “Shabbat stroll” undertaken Saturdays by Jewish families, says Lisa Kranseler, director of the Washington State Jewish Historical Society.
“Everything stemmed from here,” adds Mel Genauer, who recalls first walking to the synagogue as an 8-year-old in 1950. “It was great unity here. We always stuck by each other.”
For the past nearly 50 years, however, the building has been under city ownership, providing a largely African American constituency with a variety of programs, including theater. Known briefly as the Yesler-Atlantic Community Center, it took on a succession of names (most recently, the Langston Hughes Performing Arts Institute), all of which have saluted the prolific New York writer and activist (1902-67).
The print date for this “Now & Then” installment coincides with the onset of Rosh Hashana, the celebration of the Jewish New Year. The hope and introspection of the holiday might be reinforced by lyrics from an opera by Hughes that he shared during a 1946 lecture in Seattle: “I dream a world where men / No other man will scorn. / Where love will bless the earth / And peace its paths adorn.”