At long last, temple retrofit begins

Congregation Sherith Israel at California and Webster Streets.

TAKE A LAST LOOK at the majestic pink temple glowing in the late afternoon sunlight at the corner of California and Webster.

It is quickly being enveloped by scaffolding for a seismic retrofit that will strengthen the hundred-year-old home of Congregation Sherith Israel. And it will lose its distinctive salmon pink paint job and emerge next year in its original gray-green color of unpainted Colusa sandstone.

Through ingenious engineering, the unreinforced masonry building will otherwise look much as it always has. The walls will be strengthened through an approach called center coring, leaving the architecture intact. The interior — an artistic treasure of painted frescoes, stenciled walls, stained glass windows and hand-carved mahogany furnishings — will be unchanged.

The temple was completed only a few months before the 1906 earthquake, but suffered little damage. It was also mostly undamaged by the 1989 quake, but seismic standards have since been strengthened and public use of the building has been limited in recent years while a renovation plan was devised and funded.

The retrofitting project was launched at a Hard Hat Shabbat service on Friday, April 16. Construction began the following Monday, a day after the anniversary of the 1906 quake.

A Hard Hat Shabbat service on April 16 kicked off the renovation project.

A Hard Hat Shabbat service on April 16 kicked off the renovation project.

“Our challenge was to identify the structural things about the building that made it work well during the 1906 quake,” says Terry Paret, one of the project engineers. “The marks left by the earthquake are still there, and we can learn from them.”

The solution — to reinforce the building by drilling through the brick and stone walls to add steel rods and grout — will not compromise the design by Albert Pissis, one of San Francisco’s great early architects, who also designed the Emporium, the Flood Building and the Mechanics Institute.

Pissis also designed the medical library on the same block at Webster and Sacramento, which is also built of Colusa sandstone. The library has never been painted, and gives a good idea of how the temple will look once it is stripped of the pink paint added in the 1950s.

“The paint has done more harm than good,” says Craig Etlin, vice president of Sherith Israel. Moisture trapped under the paint damaged the surface. In recent years, scaffolding was required over the surrounding sidewalks to protect passersby.

EARLIER: “Scaffolding is only the start

  • Joe Beyer

    It was interesting to read that our good neighbor and friend, Temple Sherith Israel, has begun its retrofit and exterior wall repairs. At Calvary Presbyterian Church, located at the corner of Fillmore and Jackson since 1902, we are also about to undergo repairs. Our exterior, like Sherith Israel’s, is constructed of Colusa sandstone, which has similarly deteriorated from water damage underneath its painted surface.

    Calvary’s retrofit was completed in 2002. But during the summer months, we will be repairing a section of the exterior walls of Calvary along Jackson Street, which will require scaffolding and a protective wrapping as workers perform a sort of chemical peel of the sandstone, followed by patching and re-coating with a breathable material.

    Another tie Calvary has with the temple is that our sanctuary has been the site for Sherith Israel’s Yom Kippur services since 2005, while the use of their building has been limited as they await their retrofit. It has been an amusing sight to see passersby on Fillmore Street looking confused as people streamed out of our sanctuary wearing yarmulkes.

    This interfaith partnership goes back a long way. Immediately following the 1906 earthquake — which Calvary withstood with only minimal damage — our church became the temporary home for St. Luke’s Episcopal, Old First Presbyterian and Temple Emanu-el, along with many community groups.