The Coconut Grove building where William Jennings Bryan once belted out his classic fire-and-brimstone-style sermons soon might secure a listing in the The National Register of Historic Places.
The Chabad of South Dade, originally designed as a church in the 1920s by the prominent architectural firm of Kiehnel & Elliot — credited with bringing the Spanish Mediterranean and Art Deco feel to Miami — is seeking nomination from the city of Miami’s Historic and Environmental Preservation Board.
Founded by Rabbi Yakov Fellig in 1996, the site, 3713 Main Hwy., only has local historic designation.
Also in the works are plans to restore the aging octagon-shaped-synagogue and carry out a $2.5 million overhaul on the two surrounding buildings added on during the 1960s.
“What we’re doing is removing the additions that were built in the 1960s and reorchestrating the site to further highlight the most important building, the main structure,” said Carie Tenabad of Cure & Tenabad Architects.
Leaders of the Chabad say the plan is to build two one-story buildings near the front of the property that will serve as offices and eventually a school, and to construct a mikveh — a ritual bath — near the back.
Restoration of the original building will come later.
“To preserve these historic buildings, it’s a lot of money,” said Tenabad, who is also a professor at the University of Miami.
“The wooden-triple-hung-windows would be really expensive to restore. It has to be pressure cleaned, it needs stucco and paint. We’re searching for grant money and donors.”
According to Andy Hellinger, a member on the board of directors, the modifications should be complete within 18-20 months and will start once all permits are in hand.
Then the restoration can begin to the original building, which is also in need of a new roof.
Although funding the project will be a challenge, members of the congregation are optimistic.
“The rabbi is very confident. He said God will prevail, and we will get that money,” said Faye Reby, a member of the congregation who has headed fundraising efforts.
Qualifying for the National Register could mean being eligible for more grants.
But more importantly for members of the synagogue, it would mean protecting the stories behind the Chabad’s concrete blocks, stories that include James Cash Penney giving $1 million toward the building’s construction.
“It’s an important building, one of the first to be built with this type of architecture,” said Rabbi Fellig. “It’s a beautiful old building that we need to preserve.”
Once the nomination is granted by the city of Miami, the Florida Historical Commission will review the application and it will be sent to Washington, D.C., for final approval.
“It’s a timeless model that dates back to antiquity,” Tenabad said.
“It’s rooted in classical conditions but has modern elements. If it’s lost, it would be tragic. As we build toward the future, it’s important to preserve the buildings of the past.”