Wilshire Boulevard Temple Restored to Glory by Brenda Levin

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

After several years of heavy duty restoration, the historic Wilshire Boulevard Temple in LA’s Koreatown neighborhood is once again open (the apex of the dome is shown in this photo). 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 (sold out, but you can stream it online here). Avishay Artsy and DnA visited the temple and met with architect Brenda Levin, and Avishay produced this report. Photographs by Tom Bonnner.

Brenda Levin, principle of Levin and Associates, is responsible for the restoration and adaptive reuse of many historic Los Angeles buildings, among them 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.”

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

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.

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

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.

Levin, shown below in the sanctuary (photo: Avishay Artsy), 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.”

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