Synagogue Sanctuary Restoration: Interim Report

23 July 2014 



Before providing an update of where we are today, a brief historical recap: 

  • 2 June 1863: laying of the cornerstone for “Emanu-El of Victoria” 
  • Rosh Hashanah 5624 (14 September 1863): first use of the sanctuary 
  • November 1863: construction complete 
  • 1948: our sanctuary enters its ‘cocoon’ phase. All windows and all but one door are sealed in stucco. Interior reduced to one storey with the installation of a false ceiling 
  • 1979 – 82: a major restoration returns the appearance of the sanctuary to its historical glory 
  • 2006 – 2010: we observe cracks growing high on the walls, particularly in the south-east corner 
  • 2010: engagement of a heritage consultant (Donald Luxton and Associates, Vancouver (DLA)) and determination that the cracks are a result of the sagging roof structure 
  • 2010 – 2013: mounting the Emanu-El 150th anniversary celebrations and the raising of funds to carry out the restoration 
  • 3 January 2014: restoration starts in partnership with Reed Jones Christoffersen Ltd (RJC), consulting engineers, and Knappett Projects Inc.(KPI), general contractor. 

Progress of the Restoration 

Clearly the team of Congregation Emanu-El (CEE), DLA, RJC, and KPI was assembled in high places. In many years of managing large and small contracts in many parts of Canada and in difficult places in the world, I have never seen a project team so united in purpose and so generously mutually supporting as the team we have enjoyed here. 

Work immediately started on the core problem, the sagging roof structure. RJC had developed an innovative solution based on assembling, in situ, two large purpose-designed steel trusses to arrest the sagging and convert loads from lateral to vertical to be transferred to the existing brick walls. In addition, the roof was fastened to the brick at over 100 points around the roof perimeter. Some repair of water damaged supporting beams and reinforcing across cracks was also carried out. The implementation of this plan presented some formidable challenges to the contractor but, with amendments from RJC where needed, the leadership of the extraordinary KPI Site Superintendent, Joe Ventura, found ways to make it all happen. 

While launching the major structural work, an examination, perhaps the first in 30 years, was made of the small flat roof housing the spectacular stained glass oculus skylight window. We were surprised but not astonished to learn that the unvented single-pane shelter over the oculus had been acting as a magnifying glass and had caused near-failure deterioration of the flat roof and the supports under the stained-glass. The team was able to keep everyone safe while securing the oculus for restoration. Clearly a new shelter was needed, a design task that RJC willingly took on. Naturally this discovery had implications for cost and duration of the contract. 

In the meantime, DLA was researching old photos to determine the nature of the original roofing material. It was suspected to be slate (from Wales – it would have travelled as ships’ ballast). KPI (Joe), alert to the ongoing research, found 150 year-old fragments of the original roof inside the structure thus proving the presence of slate. After due consideration, the CEE Building Restoration Committee (Aron Bookman, Mike Goldstein, Chanah Aviva Caplan, Ed Fitch) decided to amend the contract to replace the roof (as necessitated by age and other work on the structure) with close-to-original slate. The visual effect is stunning while the extra cost now should save money in the future as the slate roofing material is known to have a superior service life. Not surprisingly, there were more implications for the cost and duration of the contract. 

Another example of project team cooperation came in the restoration of the decorative finials on the peaks of the roof. The old ones had deteriorated badly but were going to be very expensive to replicate. Again, Joe to the rescue – he discovered a method to rebuild the existing finials with his on-site crew thus saving considerable time and money. 

As the weather improved in the spring, Vintage Woodworks Inc., the window restoration contractor, started work. The old and opaque-with-age Plexiglas covers were removed from the windows and replaced with a resistant and clear storm pane. The result was felt immediately in the sanctuary interior where improvements to lighting, street sound attenuation, and stability of interior temperatures were noted. Several of the windows presented unforeseen challenges, thus more implications for the cost and duration of the contract. 

Another sub-project was to replace the antiquated, noisy and non-functional electro-mechanical controls for the sanctuary heating. The new digital controls have been installed by Houle Electric Limited and are functioning well. The final step is to connect them to the office manager’s computer so that they can be set according to anticipated activity. This upgrade is expected to save considerable electrical expense. 

As I write, the only significant piece of work left is to replace the oculus window and its newly designed shelter. The custom nature of this kind of work is such that we are affected by scheduling issues with the few shops that can undertake this sort of work. 

“Light from the East”1, 2 

  1. i.e. light from the menorah, a spiritual illumination from the Holy temple in Jerusalem. See About the Menorah: A Spiritual Illumination
  2. When a person builds a house, he makes the windows narrow on the outside and wider on the inside, so that the light from the outside should optimally illuminate the interior. But when King Solomon built the Holy Temple in Jerusalem he made the windows narrow within and wide without, so that its light should emanate to the outside and illuminate the world. (Midrash Rabbah

Early on, we noticed the small bricked-up window frame included in the apse on the exterior of the east wall of the sanctuary. Inside, this apse forms the Holy Ark (Aron HaKodesh) where the Scrolls of the Law (Sifrei Torah) are housed. We found no record of this window ever having been opened. To make a long story short, with rabbinical and Board consultation we undertook to investigate and discovered a hollow in the back wall of the Aron HaKodesh. With the skilled help of, once again, Joe Ventura we succeeded in opening this feature in the original but perhaps never realized design of the sanctuary. Glass blocks were fitted flush with the exterior and interior of the opening. Now, when conditions are right, the effect of the light streaming in from the East is quite electrifying. 

Periodic Maintenance 

A once-in-a-generation large restoration project does not relieve us as stewards of this Canadian Heritage treasure from the responsibility of normal periodic maintenance to keep everything running smoothly. One of the deliverables from this restoration work will be a schedule of periodic inspections and maintenance. 

Heritage Deficiency List 

While the current contract will soon come to a close and, with it, the major restorations undertaken in conjunction with the 150th anniversary celebrations, we will not have achieved all our aspirations which now include sub-projects only discovered or contemplated during the execution of the planned work. Examples of items on the deficiency list include: 

  • Rose Window: Should be fully restored as per Vintage Woodworks specifications. Exterior to be painted in Haddington Grey colour to match other trim. 
  • Trim Painting: Finish painting any exterior trim not covered under the current contract. Colour to be Haddington Grey. 
  • Front Doors: Should be stripped of existing finish, repaired as required, stained in a medium–‐ to–‐dark walnut varnish and clear–‐coated with polyurethane or spar varnish. The doors should match the historic appearance as seen in archival images. 
  • Decorative Lighting: Consider low‐level LED lighting that would highlight the architectural features of the exterior. Consider decorative lighting that would highlight the Rose Window and the Oculus from the inside. 
  • Interior Repainting: Consider investigation of original colours, and the development of a colour scheme that would enhance the historical appearance. 
  • Interior Lighting: Consider the installation of more appropriate light fixtures inside the Sanctuary. This could include decorative lighting for key architectural features. 
  • Protecting the Aron HaKodesh: four threats were considered: fire, theft, flood, and earthquake. A plan is developing but is outside the scope of the current contract. 
  • Early Fire Detection: money is running low but we still aspire to improve and update the current fire detection system. 

Having completed the critical repairs needed to conserve the structure, fundraising for the current round of restorations has ceased. New fundraising efforts must now be focused on more pressing operational priorities. This deficiency list may be thought of as the “to-do” list for the next generation. Surely all will be put in good order in time for the 200th anniversary celebrations in 2063! 


As always, we remember with gratitude our major sponsors: 

  • Parks Canada, National Historic Sites Cost-Sharing Program 
  • Heritage BC, Heritage Legacy Fund 
  • Victoria Civic Heritage Trust 

My next report should be in a month or two, when the oculus window is back in place and the KPI/RJC contract will have run its course. In many ways it will be sad to see the project team breaking up and moving on with their own separate destinies but this is the way of life. The team intends to assemble a photographic and narrative record of the project that will serve to inform of what has been accomplished in more detail than this interim report could manage.

– Ed Fitch
Chair, House & Security Committee
Congregation Emanu-El