Within two years after the discovery at Sutter’s Mill, the rush for California gold had achieved worldwide proportions. By 1850 upwards of 5,000 immigrants were arriving each month, some of them overland through the Nevada desert and the passes of the Sierras, but the majority by the less arduous sea routes. Around the Horn, or via the Isthmus, or across the Pacific from Australia, the Argonauts in search of the fleece of gold sailed to San Francisco.

The city had been a trading station of less than a thousand inhabitants before gold was found, but now its permanent population was estimated at between 25,000 and 30,000, not including transients traveling to and from the mines. By 1853 these figures would rise to 50,000: one-seventh the population of the young state. Like most boom-towns of the frontier, San Francisco at first was composed largely of shanties and tents: a wood and canvas city which six times in the eighteen months between December 1849 and June 1851 was virtually burned to the ground. Each time it was rebuilt on a more ambitious scale. Its unbridled vice and crime were notorious among respectable people everywhere, not excepting the increasingly impatient respectable people of San Francisco itself. Inflation was extreme: the smallest coin in circulation was the dime; new clothes were no more expensive than the cost of laundering old ones. The harbor was filled with ships whose crews, to a man, had deserted to seek fortune in the diggings. The mire in the streets was in places so deep that mules and drunken men drowned in it. On the rough boardwalks, in the saloons and gambling hells, in the theaters and lavishly furnished hotels, mingled a cosmopolitan crowd, almost entirely male, young, and vigorous, and in many cases highly educated. The San Franciscans, with their taste for fine food and wine, differed considerably from the plainer men and women who opened the Middle Border. They came not only from the eastern and southern states, but from all the nations of Europe, from Turkey, Brazil, and China. Even after the transcontinental railroad in 1869 brought St. Louis and Chicago nearer than New York, London, and Paris, and ended the pioneer phase in California history, San Francisco retained its international character. Much of the city’s charm today resides in the variety of its people’s origins and in the openness and dignity with which that variety is displayed.

Scarcely exotic among a populace which included American Indians, Sandwich Islanders, Aleuts, Malays, Lascars, and an already numerous contingent of Chinese, but nevertheless proudly distinct in their adherence to their religion, were the American and European Jews who had been coming to California since the start of the rush.1 Like the Gentile, the Jew had come for quick wealth. Gold, and gold alone, attracted the overwhelming majority of the new-comers. Like the Gentile again, the Jewish immigrant was almost always a strong young man who wore top boots and carried arms.

In spite of the lawlessness that marred the pioneer community, and the fires and epidemics which repeatedly swept over it, Jewish immigrants saw from the first that California was a Promised Land. For if the Jew, particularly the Jew fresh from Europe, came first and foremost to seek gold, he was often seeking escape from his past. The French Revolution and the Napoleonic Wars had opened the gates of the European ghettos, and the uprisings of 1848 had promised additional freedom from legalistic and professional restrictions. But after the failure of the uprisings, reaction had set in with a vengeance—at the very moment that the blossom rock flowered in California. The rush for metal offered a literally golden opportunity to the Jew eager to free himself from persecution and poverty. “Never since the great Egyptian exodus,” the historian Hubert Howe Bancroft observed with some irony, had Jews “found a soil and a society better suited to their character and taste, better adapted to their prosperity and propagation.” In San Francisco and the mining camps the only credentials demanded of a stranger were courage, enterprise, tenacity. The Jew proved he possessed these in abundance. In return he asked, in Bancroft’s phrase, “to be let alone, and here that blessing was granted him more fully than in any country he had ever seen.” Side by side with friendly Christian neighbors, Jews constructed and embellished the city of the Golden Gate.



The route taken by August Helbing, who was twenty-six years old in 1850, was followed by many of the pioneers. Helbing had enjoyed a favored childhood in Munich, where his father was court jeweler to King Ludwig I of Bavaria. At the insistence of the enlightened nobility his parents gave him a liberal education with the result that, when fighting broke out in 1848, he joined the republican forces. After the failure of the insurrection, he departed with prudent speed for New Orleans. When he heard of the sensational strikes of the Forty-niners, however, he proceeded to Panama, where he and a friend booked passage for San Francisco.

The very next day, as the ship was preparing to get under way, a train brought a new load of passengers across the Isthmus. Many of them held tickets sold in New York for accommodations already taken, including Helbing’s stateroom. Years later he recalled the episode:

I was young then, and strong as a lion. . . . The purser told me peremptorily to vacate, which I as promptly refused. He went for the captain, and the captain tried persuasion first, then threats. At this I took a brace of pistols and told them I would kill the first man attempting to enter my room; I had paid and had a right to its possession. But right or no right I would keep this room or die. The captain was not eager for bloodshed; he placed the passenger somewhere else, and my friend and I remained where we were.

They remained in their cabin until late that night, when Helbing went on deck. As his eyes grew accustomed to the darkness, he noticed “a man and woman holding a little child . . . cuddled up in a corner, shivering with cold and wet.” He spoke to them, and discovered they were Jews. They had paid for a stateroom but had found it occupied at Panama. Helbing returned to his friend, explained the situation, and soon the family was in the cabin and the two men were rolled in blankets on deck. The lady was Mrs. Hugh Simon, one of the first Jewish women to come to San Francisco.

Helbing remained on deck the twenty-one days that it took for the ship to get to the Golden Gate. At last he saw the tremendous enclosed bay, in which the navies of the world could ride at anchor. The decaying old Spanish Presidio, whose flagstaff now flew the Stars and Stripes, guarded the harbor entrance. Farther off, out of sight beyond the Presidio hill, the Mission was also in decay. Inexplicably the Spaniards, who took Monterey for their colonial capital, had failed to grasp the potentialities of San Francisco’s port. To the shrewd mind of the Yankee, however, its advantages had long been apparent. As early as 1835, when a single trader’s shack stood on shore, and when a Russian hide-ship was the only other vessel in the bay, a seaman before the mast of the “Pilgrim” observed that “if California ever becomes a prosperous country, this bay will be the center of its prosperity.” For, as Richard Henry Dana remarked, “the extreme fertility of its shores; the excellence of its climate, which is as near to being perfect as any in the world; and its facilities for navigation . . . all fit it for a place of importance.”

It became important and prosperous with unprecedented speed. The Spaniards, ironically, had failed, for all their renown as treasure-hunters, to discover California’s incredible wealth in gold. In 1848 an American, James Wilson Marshall, did. In the two decades which followed, some $800,000,000 in California gold and Nevada silver passed through San Francisco, which in turn distributed bullion to New York, London, Paris, and Rotterdam. But precious metal alone could not have laid the basis for the city’s enduring greatness. Benicia, its one-time rival which was capital of California in 1853, but now slumbers beside the Carquinez Straits, withered quickly. San Francisco owes its permanent importance to its superb natural position as a mercantile and financial center—a fact which a man like August Helbing, who was to be a founder of the San Francisco Stock Exchange, was alive to from the first.

When he disembarked, Helbing did not go to the mines. He opened a drygoods store in San Francisco. Other Jews—but by no means Jews exclusively, or even mainly—also went directly into business. Today their descendants, who bear such proud San Francisco names as Weill, Schwabacher, Magnin, Gerstle, Liebes, and Sloss, remain men of wealth and prominence. From modest beginnings and gimcrack little stores, tremendous commercial houses and industrial plants rose up. While the mines were still active, the Central Valley became one of the foremost wheat-producing areas in the world, and Isaac Friedlander was among the grain merchants who made their fortunes from the Valley’s harvests. Lumber mills were going full blast in the fir and redwood forests, and the paper industry, still today dominated by the Zellerbach family, was under way. “Levis,” now the common name for dungarees through the nation, were manufactured by the early millionaire Levi Strauss. Along the coast the vessels of Philip Solomon steamed. Jews were also active in banking. Benjamin Davidson was the representative of the Rothschild interests which, in the 50’s at least, commanded the largest accumulation of capital in California. Lazard Frères, then, as now, transacted large-scale dealings between San Francisco and Paris. Seligmans, Wormers, and other Jewish families helped to create and direct banks which have grown to colossal size and power on the West Coast.

Yet great wealth was in 1850 still remote for the typical immigrant. In his jerry-built shop, this immigrant’s quick gains were often as quickly consumed by fire; the Jewish trader was not spared the hardship and the indescribable sadness that were part of the frontier. The handsome volumes on Californiana omit often to mention the unpleasant details: that, for example, a thousand desperate men committed suicide in the city each year. The scarcity of women was more extreme than is generally realized. In 1850 the proportion of women to men in the state was one to twelve; thirty years later it was still only one to three. In this society, whose major sources of pleasure were the bar, the gambling hall, and the brothel, the young Jewish men felt their isolation keenly. “We had no suitable way of spending our evenings,” August Helbing recalled. “We passed the time back of our stores, and oftentimes were disgusted and sick from the loneliness of our surroundings.”



The pioneer Jew was to find solace and fellowship in his religion. A community took shape. New arrivals were welcomed at the dock by a committee helping them to secure decent lodgings and employment, and providing them with kosher food. Those who were penniless or ill were given substantial assistance, so that Jews were almost never dependent on public charity. The absence of Jewish criminals was considered phenomenal. The sense of rectitude was accompanied by piety. At the most intense moment of the Rush of ’49 the Jews of San Francisco put aside all other activity on Yom Kippur to fast and to pray.

“About forty or fifty Israelites have engaged a room to celebrate the . . . fast day,” Morris Samuel wrote to his brother in Philadelphia, “and have invited me to attend.” This improvised house of worship was on the second floor of a building on Montgomery Street, above an assayer’s store. Throughout the day, as the Jews chanted their services upstairs, gold dust was weighed, received, and paid for below. No Scroll of the Law was available, and consequently Leon Dyer of Baltimore, who acted as reader, used a printed Pentateuch. Only one lady was present, Mrs. Barnett Kessing. And at the same time another service, attended by about ten persons, was held in a tent occupied by Louis Franklin, a few blocks away on Jackson Street. This division revealed the kind of doctrinal and social schism which manifested itself regularly in pioneer communities of Jews. Here in early San Francisco, Jews from Poland and northern Germany, and a large number from England, subscribed to the Minhag Polen. Jews from southern Germany, in particular from Bavaria, preferred the Minhag Ashkenaz. The Bavarians—the Baiern—constituted a “patrician” element. “That the Baiern were superior to us,” Harriet Lane Levy recalled with wry wit, “we knew. We took our position as the denominator takes its stand under the horizontal line.”2

The result was the formation of two pioneer congregations. Because of the destruction of records in the 1906 earthquake some confusion exists concerning their establishment, but it would seem that the Polish, or Anglo-Polish, Sherith Israel (“Remnant of Israel”) was the first to be founded, on April 13, 1850. The other, Emanu-El, composed of German, Alsatian, French, and some English Jews, was formed only after a series of meetings held to reconcile the two factions had ended in failure. Even after the split, the members within each group would continue to bicker among themselves on ritualistic questions. Both congregations originally were Orthodox, but portions of their membership splintered away as the Reform movement very early gained control of Emanu-El and eventually, in 1893, of Sherith Israel too. The cleavage within the community ran deep. Rival benevolent societies, literary clubs, and, as the number of women increased, sewing circles sprang up. The pioneer Jews found common ground only in the cemetery, for which Emanuel Hart had donated the land in 1849; thereafter, in death if not in life, Sherith Israel and Emanu-El were united in “Hills of Eternity.”



Synagogue construction, which had been envisaged as early as 1849, was necessarily delayed by the division of so small a community of Jews. Services continued to be held in rented quarters, which were decorated and made as “homey” as possible by the married women. Purim parties and circumcision celebrations took place in hotels. But from their very inception—and nothing shows more strikingly their confidence in the city’s future—both congregations were determined to erect permanent, “noble” temples. Emanu-El, which has always been the wealthier of the two, held a fund-raising meeting on March 16, 1851, as the first step toward building a synagogue. Fifteen hundred dollars was there and then pledged by the membership.

But on the following May 4 the fifth great San Francisco fire devastated three-fourths of the city. It was reckoned the worst disaster of its kind since the burning of Moscow. Eighteen square blocks, and portions of five or six more, were burned to the ground, including the entire business section. More than 1,500 houses were destroyed. Damage was estimated at between $10 and $12 million. The $1,500 collected for Emanu-El’s synagogue literally had gone up in smoke. Virtually nothing had been insured, and the brunt of the loss fell upon the San Franciscans. With a will, they immediately started rebuilding the city. Six weeks later another major fire swept over the city, on June 22, causing an additional $3 million of destruction. This sixth great fire was the final blow to many pioneers, who left the city forever. But for the majority the fire represented a turning point. A new San Francisco rose from the ashes—“the Phoenix of the Pacific.” The city was especially fortunate in having attracted architects who, unlike the carpenter-builders of the Middle West, were graduates of the Beaux-Arts or of technical schools in Europe and the United States. The new San Francisco’s structures could compare favorably with those of contemporary London and Paris. How handsome they were can still be seen in the Montgomery Block of 1853, one of the few downtown structures to survive the 1906 earthquake. Its architect, Gordon Cummings, produced an Italianate design of admirable beauty and strength, enriched by lively detail, which perfectly expressed the young city’s mood. Moreover, together with virtually every large building which went up at this time, the Montgomery Block was intended to be fireproof; the structure was of brick, covered with plaster, and iron shutters protected the windows. By now, too, a superb volunteer fire department kept flames under control. Jewish citizens, as they had earlier joined the First Vigilance Committee, of course became members of the colorful hose and engine companies: Empire No. 1, Protection No. 2, Howard No. 3, Monumental No. 6.



In a short time San Francisco was again prospering. New immigrants more than compensated for those who had returned East. Many “proper” women arrived. Population climbed. Homes and commercial buildings naturally received priority in the reconstruction program, but soon the Jews again thought of their synagogue projects. As the community expanded with the city, rented accommodations became inadequate. Emanu-El grew from 40 members in 1851 to 75 in 1853. The following year its membership doubled, and stood at 147. Sherith Israel, although slightly smaller, increased proportionately. There were now children to be considered, too. Most of their parents wished them to receive formal religious training.

By the spring of 1854 construction became possible. Both congregations possessed substantial building funds and had purchased lots. It was probably no coincidence that the sites were within two blocks of one another: Sherith Israel on Stockton Street off Broadway; and Emanu-El on Broadway itself, near Powell. These locations were on the edge of the commercial district, but close to the middle-class residential neighborhoods where many Jews lived. In June the architects’ plans were approved and the building contracts signed.

As if sent by Providence, the city’s first rabbi, Dr. Julius Eckman, arrived on the first of July from Mobile, Alabama, just as the temples began to rise. This learned and charitable man, a graduate of the University of Berlin who had mastered seven languages, and a teacher who gave lessons free of charge, was also a believer in Orthodoxy. His convictions would soon cause dismay among the San Franciscans, but for the moment all went well. He was invited to assume the pulpit of Emanu-El, and on July 24 he officiated at the Cornerstone laying. Two weeks later he presided at a similar ceremony for Sherith Israel. In September the buildings were completed in time for the High Holidays. Five years earlier the Jews of San Francisco had worshipped in a tent and a bare room. Now two flourishing congregations possessed synagogues solidly constructed of brick, which were considered by the press to be “substantial and elegant” and “an ornament to the city.” It was a moment to be marked in the history of Judaism and of the American West.

In accordance with prevailing taste in religious architecture, the temples were “Gothic” in style. Their windows and portals were pointed. Buttresses seemed to support the walls. In fact, the buildings were ingenuously Victorian. Structurally, they were little more than oblong boxes to which neo-Gothic ornamentation had been applied. Only the street façades were treated elaborately. Otherwise the exteriors were very plain. Within, each of the temples was divided into upper and lower levels. The synagogue itself occupied the upper floor. Below were vestries and schoolrooms.

In old engravings, which depict bonneted ladies with parasols entering the synagogues on the arms of gentlemen in stove-pipe hats and frock coats, the buildings look quite similar. Basically they were. But Emanu-El, designed by William Craine and Thomas England, was the more imposing of the two. It measured 65 by 78 feet, compared with Sherith Israel’s 40 by 60. Its seating capacity of 800 was twice that of Sherith Israel. As can be expected, Emanu-El was also more costly to construct: on it was expended $19,000, as compared with Sherith Israel’s $10,000. Taken as architecture alone, Emanu-El was surely the more interesting structure. A large tracery window dominated the center of its façade. On either side was an arched portal, to which a staircase ascended at a right angle from the street. These staircases, as well as the small pointed windows above the portals, and the rose window above the central lancet, were well considered by the architects. The proportions were rather fine. And two tall buttresses, whose fleuron pinnacles sharply broke the pitch of the roof, gave spirit to the whole. Sherith Israel, designed by Miner Frederic Butler, was less complex. A pair of high, narrow windows flanked its Gothic doorway. The gable above was surmounted by three pinnacles. Neither of these buildings, it should be noted, gave any architectural indication, on the exterior at least, that they were synagogues. They closely resembled churches of the period. Of their interiors little is known. The five lancet windows in each side wall must have furnished good lighting. There were galleries for women in both synagogues.

On Friday afternoon, September 8, 1854, Sherith Israel was the first synagogue to be consecrated in San Francisco. On September 14 came the turn of Emanu-El. Rabbi Eckman officiated at both services, during which “beautifully decorated” scrolls, one of them donated by Sir Moses Montefiore of London, were carried seven times about the temple to the “seraphine accompaniment” of the choir. The Daily Alta noted only one difference between the ceremonies. At Emanu-El “sixteen sweet, pretty little girls, dressed in white, with blue sash bands and shoulder knots” accompanied the men carrying the Torahs. “From each scroll depended blue ribbons, and on each side of each scrollbearer walked a little girl, bearing in her hand the end of a ribbon.”



The synagogues were erected in the nick of time. The next year the Panic of 1855 seized San Francisco. Most of the populace, from bankers to bootblacks, had speculated in mining stocks, and the city was one of the hardest hit in the nation. But again the San Franciscans turned adversity to some profit.

Growing indignation against municipal corruption and extravagance at last erupted in the re-establishment of the Vigilance Committee. Here is not the place to pass judgment on the Vigilantes, who were so confident that they possessed the extra-legal right to judge others. Yet Pauline Jacobson in her City of the Golden Fifties was able to speak of the Committee’s armed intervention in civic affairs as a “revolution.” The “solid classes” of the city, which had neglected their public responsibilities for nearly a decade, so long as prosperity continued, now claimed those responsibilities by force. When the Vigilantes proudly published their membership list, many Jewish names appeared, including those of the financiers Benjamin Davidson and Jesse Seligman. Those who had misgivings about the Committee discovered that it could, if need be, apply severe pressure even on honest citizens; businessmen who did not wish to join were boycotted. It must be said to the credit of the Committee that it undoubtedly provided the municipal government with new stability, if not with absolute integrity. The courts, which had been extremely reluctant to deliver convictions, henceforth assumed responsibility.

Such developments were warmly welcomed by the Jewish merchants, who were to acquire “prestige and complacency,” as young Harriet Levy skeptically looked on. Her father Benish Levy represented a type, and she knew the type perfectly:

There was no deviation from the one standard of excellence. Each had a paying business, a family, a house and lot, and some money in the bank. Each stood firm on his feet, looked the world straight in the eye, and knew that he measured up well by the standard of God and man. They paid their dues to the synagogue, observed the Sabbath, gave to the charities, supported poor relations, and among men in business their word was as good as their bond.

They stood for solid possessions, acquired by solid worth, upon adherence to solid principles. They were all strong men in muscle and in moral fiber. They obeyed the law; they spoke the truth and expected it. . . . The world of successful merchants was our world, and I did not know that there was another.

Yet such men helped to create the city of 100,000 inhabitants at which Richard Henry Dana marveled during his second visit to San Francisco in 1860. The sight he beheld from his comfortable room in the Oriental Hotel seemed hardly credible. Where a shack had stood a quarter of a century earlier, he saw courthouses, theaters, and hospitals. The harbor sheltered more tonnage than London or Liverpool. The French restaurants seemed to him as good as those in Paris. San Francisco had become “one of the capitals of the American Republic, and the sole emporium of a new world, the awakened Pacific.” The New Englander also noted the many steeples and towers which rose above the roofs of the city, and made a round of the churches. One Saturday he visited a synagogue, after which he remarked that “the Jews are a wealthy and powerful class here.” (Unfortunately he did not record his impressions of the services.)



This class constructed its own most fitting monument in one of the important buildings of the 19th century: the new Temple Emanu-El. It was also a monument to a new conception of Judaism incarnated by men such as Elkan Cohn. His Temple Emanu-El, together with Isaac M. Wise’s Temple B’nai Yeshurun in Cincinnati and Temple Emanu-El in New York, was one of the three great early synagogues of the Reform movement in the United States. Emanu-El’s first rabbi, Julius Eckman, quarreled with his nominally Orthodox congregation shortly after he arrived in 1854. He moved to Sherith Israel, but here too, among men who interpreted the Law more strictly than at Emanu-El, he was deemed “old-fashioned.” Most of the pioneers were then under thirty; Dr. Eckman was fifty. In the interval separating their generations the world had changed. After a few months Dr. Eckman resigned. In 1855 he founded The Gleaner, the first Jewish periodical on the Pacific Coast, to which he devoted himself until his death in 1874.

Sherith Israel remained two years without a rabbi until it found a man after its heart in Dr. Henry A. Henry, an English-born disciple of London’s famous Rabbi Herschel. Emanu-El waited five years before Elkan Cohn, an advocate of Reform, was invited to come from Albany, New York, and assume the pulpit in 1860.

Rabbi Cohn was forty years old and at the height of his powers. In the six years since he had been called from the ancient community of Brandenburg to Albany, he had become a major figure in American Judaism. He was also a scholar and a linguist. As a student at the University of Berlin, where he had become acquainted with the Reform movement after an Orthodox up-bringing in Posen, he had written Hebrew poetry and Greek and Latin verse. Although he was to retain a German accent until the end of his life, his English was “plain, beautiful, and full of wisdom.” He spoke French too, which undoubtedly endeared him to the Lazards, Cahens, Godcheaux, and other French Jews who were among the most influential members of Emanu-El. In course of time he would become “beloved” by everyone. But at the outset friction developed between the rabbi and a substantial portion of the congregation. Dr. Cohn wished to remove from the ritual such traces of “Orientalism” as the covering of heads. Not all of the pioneers were willing to go that far. In 1864, at the very moment their support was urgently needed for the new temple then contemplated, seventy families—a full third of the membership—seceded, and organized the Congregation Ohabai Shalome. The extent of this loss can be measured by the fact that Ohabai Shalome in its first year erected a synagogue which cost $60,000.3

If Elkan Cohn and the leaders of Emanu-El were shaken, they gave little sign. The Rabbi held to his principles with the same kindly expressed but inflexible firmness with which he supported the Union in the Civil War. He was a friend of the fervent Abolitionist Thomas Starr King, the Unitarian minister who, as much as any man, kept California on the side of the North. Starr King and Elkan Cohn had the happy idea of joining their congregations on Thanksgiving Day, a tradition which has persisted. In 1865 Cohn’s deeply cherished hopes were realized. The Union had triumphed (although the Rabbi fell down “as if in a faint” when the news of Lincoln’s death reached him during services). Emanu-El formally abandoned the Minhag Ashkenaz. And a temple was rising—The Temple Emanu-El, it would be called by Jews and Christians alike—which was to be “the pride and wonder of California.”



The broadway synagogue had been out-grown within a decade. Moreover, its location was no longer acceptable. The middle and upper classes were moving to the far side of Nob and Russian Hills, to bay-windowed houses such as Benish Levy’s 920 O’Farrell Street, and across Van Ness Avenue to the Western Addition which had once been sand. Children from these homes could not conveniently come to Broadway for instruction. Nor could their parents remain satisfied with the appearance of the old temple. They not only wanted something better: they wanted “an edifice combining all that modern art and taste can design.”

In 1860 a committee was appointed to select a new lot. Two sites were available, one on Nob Hill itself. Why Emanu-El did not choose this eminence, where the Stanford, Flood, Hopkins, and Crocker mansions would be built, is a mystery. Perhaps some members were reluctant to climb the steep hill on the Sabbath. The other site was one of the finest in San Francisco. Today it is occupied by the skyscraper 450 Sutter Street, which towers above the fashionable shops surrounding Union Square. The price of $15,000—at which Benjamin Davidson offered it to his congregation—was considered reasonable enough.

There remained the selection of an architect. Even if a Jew could have been found practicing architecture on the Pacific Coast, it is doubtful that Emanu-El would have chosen him on the basis of his religion alone. But the few Jewish architects in the United States were in the East. None of them, including Leopold Eidlitz, was as gifted as William Patton, the creator of Emanu-El. With Gordon Cummings he was the finest early architect in California. Patton, born in north England, very early came to know the majestic Norman cathedral and university buildings at Durham, where he studied architecture. Eventually he entered the London office of the most famous architect of the Gothic Revival, Sir Gilbert Scott, who created the Albert Memorial. Abandoning a promising career in England, Patton in 1849 sailed round the Horn: he had been unable to resist the gold fever. After a few difficult years in the mines and a brief, luckless period as a businessman, he decided to return to his profession.

At the time he was engaged by Emanu-El in 1864, Patton had already designed several of the most admired buildings in California. As a church architect, he found himself without a rival after creating Starr King’s Unitarian Church in 1863. Its main feature was a flamboyant rose window, resembling the transept roses of the Cathedral of Sens. This alone would have won him the Emanu-El commission.

His plans for the synagogue were enthusiastically accepted, and contracts were signed, calling for an expenditure of $134,000. On October 25, 1864, President Louis Sachs laid the cornerstone with a handsome silver trowel which, on behalf of the congregation, he presented to the architect, adding the hope that “the building, when completed, would be as appropriate and beautiful in its purpose as that instrument itself.”

Patton’s reply was a memorable tribute to toleration:

If there is anything especially admirable in this wonderful age, and in this wonderful land . . . it is that cosmopolitan freedom of thought and toleration of opinion that treats all civilized men and women as equal. The past social history of Europe and Asia, almost up to the present day, is mostly a recount of schisms and enmities, vindictiveness and persecutions for religion’s sake. . . . Here, at least, the Gentile does not revile the Jew, nor the Jew the Gentile. Here every man worships God as he best chooses, according to his conscience. No sectarian prejudice interferes with the rapid progress of this people . . . untrammeled alike by Popish tyranny of intolerance or by Puritanical spite. . . .

Thereupon he proceeded to give a historical summary of Jewish architecture; for the Victorian age, it was exceptionally well informed. Although the Jews had been denied a national history since ancient times, he then declared ared, there was “no reason why they should not at least henceforth possess an architectural history.” He made a fascinating denunciation of eclecticism in synagogue design. Nothing so intelligent was to be expressed on the subject until men such as Erich Mendelsohn, Frank Lloyd Wright, and Percival Goodman again took it up in the 20th century:

Shall we go to the dark ages of the world for the source of our inspiration . . . and adopt the Byzantine or Romanesque? or shall we, by adopting certain forms, work out our own problem suitably for the day in which we live and to the spirit of the present time? Shall we make use of all forms, conventional and natural, and mould them by our spirit to our will? Shall we create it in a day, or will it be the growth of a century? To this I say—Let us do our part and it shall be seen.

In the old photographs and newspaper accounts of the lost building, we can see what sort of synagogue William Patton hoped would mark “the commencement of an Architectural Jewish era.”



On the easy hill of the north side of Sutter Street, throughout the year 1865, the San Franciscans watched a building rise whose over-all dimensions—some 80 feet wide and 120 feet long—compared with those of a medium-sized cathedral of the Middle Ages. The building obviously had more in common with a medieval structure than size alone. It was apparent that William Patton, in spite of his disapproval of historicism, in fact had borrowed heavily from a historical style: the Gothic. His façade was an adaptation of the classical Gothic façade: four main buttresses, very much like the great forward buttresses of Notre-Dame of Paris, marked its three vertical divisions, rising to twin towers. Eight similar buttresses ran the length of either side, dividing the nave into bays. Projecting from the rear was a flat-walled apse—a type often preferred in England to the rounded French apse—which enabled the architect to take maximum advantage of the confined city lot.

Yet it was evident that this was no slavish copy of a medieval design. For one thing, comparatively few Gothic buildings were constructed in brick, as was this synagogue. Only the decorative moldings and trim were in stone, probably California granite. The rest was superlative brickwork. To see what excellence San Francisco achieved in brick masonry in the 19th century, one has only to visit Fort Point, beside the Golden Gate, which was erected a few years before Emanu-El. The synagogue’s brickwork was as fastidious and as powerful. The bricks lifted in beautifully bonded beds, curving in arches and vaults, performing any structural or decorative role the architect desired.

What distinguished such construction from that of the Broadway temple was its organic wholeness. Gothic decoration was not merely plastered against a brick box. The arches, the pillars, the buttresses were built into the structure, as they would have been in a truly medieval church. William Patton’s British apprenticeship served him well. No nation has ever used brick construction more convincingly than England, and probably nowhere in the world could he have learned its secrets so thoroughly as in Durham and York. The contemporary press did not exaggerate when it described him as a “master builder.” For once, remarked the Pioneer, a client had generously enabled Patton “to give his genius wing.” Too often the ambitious architect had been “hindered by the views of owners” and their “fear of a little extra expense.” At Emanu-El no expense was spared: the total cost of the building, after the interior was fully furnished, amounted to $200,000—an outlay undertaken by two hundred-odd families. Patton was “given his way,” and his masterpiece—he and the public both so considered it—rose majestically above San Francisco.



Monumental flights of steps, sheltered from the street by an arcaded wall, led to the central portal from either side. Above the entrance stood a triangular porch, supported by two round arches which extended diagonally from the façade and converged in a single pier. Deep within the shadows of the porch was the portal of the temple. Round arches, suggesting the Romanesque, rather than the pointed ones expected in a neo-Gothic structure, were employed deliberately by Patton. For directly above the portal was a tremendous stained glass window, about 45 feet high and 20 feet wide, whose round arch spanned the full central compartment of the façade. Its elegant tracery traveled upward not to a rose motif, which of course would have been logically housed beneath a round arch, but to a Shield of David ingeniously enclosed in a circular framework. Here was Patton’s contribution to a truly Jewish architecture: the Jewish symbol was made inseparable from basic structure, and exuberantly displayed in an expression of religious freedom. In tall windows to either side, beneath the towers, Shields of David again appeared within round arches; and again in the windows on the sides of the towers. Higher still, inscribed in panels at the base of the towers, were four more monumental Shields of David. Between the towers, at the crest of the central gable, more than 100 feet above the ground and on view to all the city, were the stone Tablets of the Law. Never, either in ancient or modern times, had Jewish symbols been displayed so conspicuously and in such profusion on the exterior of a building.

In no sense was the decorative scheme of this prophetic building capricious or merely literary. The Shields of David, together with the cornices, crockets, and other ornamental details, gave superb scale to the building as it rose upward with effortless grace and power. The transition of the towers from a square base to an octagon, a problem that plagued even the architects of the Middle Ages, was solved with extraordinary originality. The buttresses, narrowing and receding as they ascended, were suddenly sprung free, in minaret-like shafts, as the towers lifted to the crowning glory of Emanu-El: its twin domes. One hundred and sixty-five feet above San Francisco, the bulbs of these twin domes tapered upward in what might seem a Byzantinesque dream, and then pointed still higher, to culminate in two round golden spheres—“the golden globes”—which in the sunlight were visible for miles.



What, if anything, did these strange domes mean? Rachel Wischnitzer has placed them at the background of the Moorish Revival.4 And indeed, they can be interpreted as “Oriental” in form. But why, in a building which was otherwise so carefully considered, should it be assumed that the domes were purely fanciful? Granted that William Patton may have seen a picture of one of the Moorish synagogues erected in Germany at this time, as Mrs. Wischnitzer suggests, would he have merely placed the domes as meaningless eclectic additions on the tops of his splendidly proportioned towers? From what is known of the architect, this seems unlikely. The domes, moreover, gave a perfect note of completion to the strong and sensitive structure beneath them. All this suggests they were part of a unified symbolic conception. Sheathed in bronze, tipped in gold, glistening in the sunlight, could they not have suggested the crowns of a Torah?

A curious piece of evidence supports this interpretation. The Pioneer, in its obituary of Patton in 1899, described the domes as “the pomegranate capitals which crown the towers.” By striking coincidence, the Hebrew term for the head pieces, or capitals, of the Torah is rimmonim, which literally means “pomegranates.” The author of the unsigned article in the Pioneer, probably the editor R. A. Thompson himself, could scarcely have hit upon his description by hazard. Had he heard it from William Patton or Elkan Cohn? If so, Patton’s conception of a truly Jewish architecture gains depth and force. The building, in its very form, would then have been a symbolic representation of the Law. The rimmonim, crowning the twin towers, were the capitals of the giant image of the Torah. The tremendous central window, proudly displaying the Shield of David, was the Torah’s breastplate.

Yet still another interpretation is possible. The famous brazen pillars of the Temple of Solomon, fashioned by Hiram of Tyre, were surmounted by pomegranate capitals. Possibly Elkan Cohn and William Patton sought to recall the glory of the Temple in the glistening domes of the synagogue.

In any case it seems clear that the rabbi and the architect were directly inspired by the Biblical fruit, symbol of the mystical goodness and fertility of the earth. Throughout the Bible the pomegranate is the sign of joy and abundance, the refreshing gift of the Lord to a people emerged from the dry wilderness. And was not California a new Canaan? Truly it was “a good land, a land of brooks of water, of fountains and depths that spring out of valleys and hills; a land of wheat, and barley, and vines, and fig trees, and pomegranates. . . . A land wherein thou shalt eat bread without scarceness, thou shalt not lack any thing in it; a land whose stones are iron, and out of whose hills thou mayest dig brass.”

“The pomegranates have budded,” sang the passionate sweetheart of the Song of Songs, and the synagogue, in its structural music, proclaimed a mystical message to San Francisco: “O that thou wert as my brother! . . . I would lead thee, and bring thee into my mother’s house. . . . I am a wall, and my breasts like towers.”

In their Biblical splendor the gold-tipped towers were the pride of the city. They were the first landmark sighted by ships rounding the point of Telegraph Hill. Students, hiking in the Berkeley hills above the University, saw them, distant but vivid, across the blue expanse of the bay. The Temple, the anonymous writer in the Pioneer asserted, was “a true creation of genius, harmonious in all its parts and growing in height and beauty the longer the eye rests upon it. Its twin pomegranate spires are visible from all the approaches to San Francisco and the interest they arouse is more than realized on a closer view.”

The interior possessed the same grand structural rhythm as the outside of the synagogue. Here too, eclectic detail was subordinated to a virile conception of space. Through the abstract patterns of the stained glass windows light flooded the interior of the auditorium. It was one of the largest vaulted rooms ever constructed in California, 53 feet across, 97 feet long, and 50 feet from the floor to the highest keystones. Twelve hundred people could be seated in the pews of polished black walnut and in the elegant galleries cantilevered outward on either side. The Ark, hung with crimson velvets, and flanked by columns which rose 35 feet without a break to their flowered capitals, was lodged within the great triumphal arch of the apse. Its rosewood was delicately carved and inlaid with Shields of David and the Tablets of the Law. Above the Ark was a mighty organ. Higher still was a circular window containing a twelve-pointed star: the Seal of Solomon combined with the Shield of David. Beneath the auditorium, serving structurally and spiritually as its foundation, was the school for eight hundred students.

At the dedication ceremony on Friday afternoon, March 24, 1866, the Christian reporter of the Daily Alta “was lost in admiration at the magnificent proportions of the interior.” The gas lights had been turned on, “making a most striking appearance.” After the Scrolls were reverently placed in the Ark, Rabbi Cohn gave an hour-long sermon in which he stated “that whilst of religion they were Israelites, they knew no other nationality than that of Americans.” Then Cantor Weisler sang the service, accompanied by the choir, “and the stranger became aware how grand and beautiful-how harmonious and pleasant is the ancient tongue—the Hebrew.”

For forty years the Temple reigned over San Francisco, as the pioneers aged. Elkan Cohn, white-bearded and venerable, died in 1889. Ten years later William Patton followed him. In 1906, after the earthquake shook the city, San Francisco was devastated by the most terrible of its fires. The synagogue was charred and gutted, yet its walls held.

The building was restored, but the domes were not rebuilt. Somehow, it was never the same again. In 1926 the congregation at last followed the progress of the city westward. A new Emanu-El, one of the most sumptuous synagogues ever constructed, was erected where, two generations before, sand had blown in the wind. Now almost all of the pioneers were gone, blown like grains of sand. Their city had grown more lordly and wealthy than Tyre, and like Tyre it had been built by a multitude of nations. But Judah, and the land of Israel, had been its merchants. In its market they had traded wheat of Minnith, and honey, and oil, and balm.



1 Few, if any, Jews were present in California before it was formally ceded to the United States in 1848. To enter a Spanish-speaking Catholic country early in the 19th century required courage of a Jew. Quite aside from the official xenophobia of the Spanish and Mexican administrations in California, it should be recalled that the Holy Office of the Inquisition was not abolished in Spain until 1834.

2 See her 920 O'Farrell Street for a fascinating and delightful account of Jewish life in San Francisco during the Gilded Age.

3 This “handsome edifice,” as it was described in the San Francisco Directory of 1865, was designed by William Patton, the architect of the second Temple Emanu-El. It was “an elegant and substantial brick structure,” whose interior was richly decorated. AH the woodwork was in “beautifully carved and polished” black walnut. The backs and seats of the pews were upholstered in crimson damask; the floor was covered with Brussels carpets. It was illuminated by eight “Gothic windows” above the galleries on either side and by a rose window above the ark. From the center of the ceiling was suspended a chandelier of sixty lights.

4 See her Synagogue Architecture in the United States (1955) for a discussion of the “Moorish” synagogues which followed Emamu-El. An important monument directly inspired by Emanu-El, which she does not mention, was the old Temple B'nai B'rith in Los Angeles.

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