History of Plum Street Temple
Prior to the Civil War, the 200 families of K. K. B'nai Yeshurun (Isaac M. Wise Temple) envisioned a magnificent building to house their growing twenty-year old congregation. The congregation had already gained a national prominence because of their rabbi, Isaac Mayer Wise. With his energy and vision, the congregation and Cincinnati were quickly becoming a center of national Jewish life. The lot on the corner of Eighth and Plum Streets was purchased for the sum of $35,000. Construction was anticipated to cost $55,000, but the delays caused by the Civil War and its post-war inflation meant that the building was erected in 1866 at a cost of $263,525. In our Wise Temple Archive Library, we have the original ledger book where all costs in the construction of Plum Street Temple were entered.
Designed by James Keys Wilson, a prominent American architect and first president of the Cincinnati Chapter of the American Institute of Architects, the building reflects a synagogue architectural style that had emerged in Germany in the nineteenth century, a Byzantine-Moorish style. It hearkens to a previous era of the Golden Age of Spain in Jewish history, and reflects Rabbi Wise's optimism that the developing American Jewish experience would be the next Golden Age. All other examples of such architecture in Germany were later destroyed by Hitler. Only one other synagogue of similar style exists in America, namely, in New York. The complex design of Plum Street Temple mirrors many cultures: from the outside the tall proportions, three pointed arched entrances, and rose window suggest a Gothic revival church; the crowning minarets hint of Islamic architecture; the motif's decorating the entrances, repeated in the rose window, and on the Torah Ark introduce a Moorish theme; the 14 bands of Hebrew texts surrounding the interior were selected by Rabbi Wise and were chosen primarily from the Book of Psalms.
The building has been carefully preserved. The original flooring, pews, and pulpit furnishings are still in use. The chandeliers and candelabra, formerly gaslight, are now electrical, but still the original fixtures. The original pipe organ, itself historical in nature and a unique instrument, built by the Cincinnati firm of Koehnken and Company, is still in place, and was restored as the Rockwern Organ in 2005.
The 1994 - 1995 restoration renewed a sense of vitality and sparkle to a building which looks much the same now as when it was built over 130 years ago. Designated a national historic landmark and placed on the Department of the Interior's National Register of Historic Places in 1975, it was recognized then as a "splendid and exotic building." It is even more so now with its recent restoration.
Plum Street Temple is not a museum to the past; it is a living, dynamic sanctuary with a congregation devoted to its maintenance and its continuation. The building is used nearly every week for Sabbath services, programs, life-cycle events, and other religious functions. Beyond its history and its beauty, Plum Street Temple is the fountainhead of Reform Judaism in America.
It was from this building that Rabbi Isaac M. Wise founded the institutions of Reform Judaism, which prior to his active career, had consisted of ideology without an institutional structure. The founding of the Union of American Hebrew Congregations (1873), the Hebrew Union College (1875), and the Central Conference of American Rabbis (1889), representing the structure of Reform Judaism, was accomplished from the Plum Street Temple by Rabbi Wise, who served as founder and president of these three institutions while Rabbi at K.K. B'nai Yeshurun until his death in 1900. The Temple still annually hosts the ordination of rabbis from the Cincinnati campus of Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion. The majestic synagogue continues to reflect Rabbi Isaac Mayer Wise's vision of Reform Judaism, a religious movement with a distinctly American look, so that "a religious Jew can also be a citizen of a free country, a member of society, a reasoner of modern thought."