At the corner of Woodward Avenue and Gladstone Street in Detroit’s North End stands a building of majestic stone and marble. Above its eight soaring columns is a name chiseled into the facade: Temple Beth El. The former Jewish synagogue projects its name proudly to the neighborhood, an unabashed 20th-century adaption of the Grecian ionic ideal.
For half a century, this temple served as the spiritual home of Michigan’s oldest Jewish congregation, founded in the 1850s at the Couzens family’s home in Detroit.
By 1920, the congregation had outgrown its old home, what is now the Bonstelle Theatre, farther down Woodward. This building was designed in 1922 by the esteemed architectural firm of Albert Kahn, himself Jewish and a member of the congregation. It spans 55,000 square feet and five floors, and includes a 1,600-seat interior-dome sanctuary, banquet hall, a commercial kitchen, sub-basement gymnasium (later converted into classrooms), showers and locker rooms, a 350-seat auditorium, and 55 classrooms, offices and multi-purposes rooms of various sizes and configurations.
This former temple, residing at 8801 Woodward Ave., is now owned and occupied by Breakers Covenant Church International, a nondenominational Christian church led by Pastor Aramis D. Hinds. Pastor Hinds purchased the building in 2014 and has since renamed it the Bethel Community Transformation Center (BCTC), a tribute to both the enduring legacy of its former tenants from the metro Detroit Jewish community, as well as his commitment to making it a community center capable of serving a diverse, multiracial and multi-religious clientele of worshippers, recreational/educational center members and public and private event-goers.
The sanctuary space is by far the most grandiose. With an interior dome suspended by wires from tremendous I-beams above, the amphitheater-style seating consists of two levels of solid mahogany wooden pews with custom curvatures to match the room. The extensive murals above feature four frescos depicting different eras of Jewish history: from biblical scenes in the desert to a modern-day Eastern European Jewish immigrant passing the Statue of Liberty on a boat bound for Ellis Island in New York.
Though much of the building’s original interior remains – albeit with some minor disrepair to be mended – several elements of the sanctuary were transported to Temple Beth El’s new home at 14 Mile Road and Telegraph in suburban Bloomfield in 1973. These include the 10 majestic stained-glass windows depicting the Ten Commandments, as well as the holy arc holding the Torahs (Jewish bibles) and the Ne’er Tamid (Eternal Light) hanging above it. The temple also transported the sanctuary’s immense mechanical pipe organ, which now sits beside the arc and Eternal Light in the small chapel in Bloomfield. (Legend has it that the new building architect, Minoru Yamasaki – who also designed the World Trade Center – disapproved of these additions to the building, as they didn’t match his modernist style. Ultimately, the client won over.)
Below the sanctuary is a 500-seat banquet hall and commercial kitchen. On the same basement level, men’s and women’s locker rooms have been converted into bathrooms and a social service organization for homeless and at-risk Detroit youth called the Phoenix Center. The old Sisterhood Gift Shop has been replaced with a candy store. The large kitchen still serves meals at community and private events, and also features a walk-in safe that presumably once held the temple’s silver.
Pastor Hinds has embarked on an ambitious restoration and renovation project on the building, beginning with a Kickstarter campaign to jump-start the process. The multiyear, multimillion dollar project aims to both preserve the aesthetic beauty of the worship spaces while also layering on a state-of-the-art performing arts sound and lighting system and updated banquet hall and kitchen. Below, in the sub-basement, the original gymnasium design will be restored and updated along with the lockers rooms to serve as a community center for local youth and adult recreation. In the education wing of the building, the auditorium and four floors of classrooms and multi-purpose space will be modernized to serve as educational and entrepreneurial learning and co-working space. BCTC is also in discussions with the Jewish Historical Society of Michigan to collaborate on a permanent museum exhibition space documenting the rich (and ongoing) history of metro Detroit’s Jewish community.
On the building exterior, BCTC plans to upgrade the landscaping and green space surrounding the building to make room for community gardening and a rooftop rainwater collection system, as well as a solar roof. The adjacent gated parking lot will be repaved and enhanced with bike parking and green space, as well.
As the centennial anniversary of the building approaches in 2022, BCTC is working diligently to both preserve the historic Jewish heritage of the building while also making it a functional, transformative center for the North End community.
To learn more about the restoration project under way at the historic Temple Beth El, go to the Bethel Community Transformation Center’s Kickstarter page here.