Jewish center on Beacon Hill undergoes renovations, seeks to uncover its painted past
If the light is just right, then Gianfranco Pocobene says you can see the texture of past murals behind the plain beige walls of the Vilna Shul.
The paint covers three other layers, the oldest of which, once uncovered, will show what the historic Beacon Hill synagogue looked like in the 1920s, when it welcomed Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe.
Pocobene, a specialist in the conservation of paintings and murals, already uncovered a portion of the original surface in a 2009-10 restoration project that revealed murals of Rachel’s Tomb and the Cave of the Patriarchs.
But what lies beneath the rest of the synagogue’s walls remains a mystery.
“When you have a situation where there’s this kind of surprise element, it makes it really satisfying,” he said. “A lot of it’s going to be a lot of discovery.”
The last immigrant-era synagogue in downtown Boston, the Vilna Shul now operates as a cultural center. It closed last October for extensive renovations focused on making the building more accessible: creating a stairless entrance, installing an elevator, and putting a women’s restroom on the ground floor. Crews are also refurbishing the center’s community space and adding heating and air conditioning.
The $4 million project is on pace to be completed in late September, allowing the synagogue to reopen in time for the Jewish high holiday season. The project also coincides with the synagogue’s centennial, which Barnet Kessel, the Vilna Shul’s executive director, called “poetic.” The building’s cornerstone was laid in 1919.
“The history here is rich,” said Kessel, 51. “The history that we’re writing today and tomorrow I think is equally as rich. To breathe life into it and make sure that it will survive for another 100 years, I’m not sure I could do anything more important with my life professionally.”
The center is raising money for a second phase of renovations, which are expected to cost as much as $3 million. Kessel is hopeful the work, which will include the full restoration of the murals and the synagogue’s historic wooden pews, will begin this fall and take about a year.
Restoring the original murals is delicate work that requires a methodical approach, said Pocobene, 62.
“It’s not just taking any cleaning solution and going at it,” he quipped.
To remove the current paint, Pocobene will cover a small section of the wall in a paste-like solvent, let it sit for an exact amount of time, then take something resembling a handmade Q-tip to remove the solvent and the paint. Since there are four layers, and Pocobene’s task is to conserve the original, the process becomes more nerve-wracking near the end, he said.
“It’s when you get to that last little bit that you’re more cautious,” he said. “If you let it linger too long, you could easily do damage to the original paint.”
The original paint will be exposed on all the walls except one, which will show all four layers to document the history of the building’s decor.
The Vilna Shul also boasts pews from the 1840s that were originally housed in the African Baptist Church, which a Jewish congregation purchased as its place of worship before building the Vilna Shul. The congregation brought the pews with them to the new location.
Kessel said that the Vilna Shul attracts a wide range of visitors, and that everyone is welcome. Its programming is aimed not just at Jewish people but to demonstrate “the universality of the immigrant experience.”
Jewish residents settled on Beacon Hill in the late 19th century and in time had enough financial success to move to different parts of the city and the suburbs.
Kessel doesn’t think it’s necessarily something physical in the Vilna Shul that might speak to current immigrant populations. It’s more the concept of “they were here.”
“They experienced what we’re experiencing today. And we know what happened to this community. And maybe that will happen to me and my community with hard work — a little bit of luck — but a lot of hard work.”