More than 50 years ago, Memphis architect Keith Kays had a memorable meeting with the leadership of Anshei Sphard-Beth El Emeth. Ron Harkavy, the congregation’s president, and his colleagues were there to hear Kays describe his vision for a new building to house the synagogue.
Kays began his presentation and described a unique structure developed by noted architect Francis Mah.
“I talked for a little bit and made a presentation on the design,” Kays said. “When I finished there was complete silence and a man stood up and said, ‘Mr. Kays, I just have one question: If we approved this design, will we like it?’ and I said ‘Yes, you will,’ and they did.”
Fast forward from the synagogue’s 1970 opening to the year 2020, and the building that Mah and Kays designed has achieved a very special recognition. On July 24, it was certified on The National Register of Historic Places by the U.S. Department of the Interior. The honor calls Anshei Sphard-Beth El Emeth as significant for its place in American Jewish history and for its architecture.
The building, at 120 East Yates, the former home of the congregation, has been described in the past with terms ranging from “the purple spaceship” to “the disco shul.” Perhaps not what one might expect from an orthodox congregation. It is unapologetically modernist in its design. That was something of a departure for houses of worship in the late 1960s. Mah in particular was inspired by the Hebrew bible, according to Lynnie Mirvis, a member of the congregation and co-vice president for programs of the Jewish Historical Society.
“Francis Mah became inspired with the tabernacles that were carried in the desert and the colors of scarlet and purple and blue and silver, so the walls of the interior of the sanctuary are all silver and the tapestry of the seats are scarlet,” Mirvis said. “Those colors were very striking and were very different from what a synagogue looked like. It took your breath away, and it turned out to be a very inspiring place to pray because the silver walls actually reflected people in prayer. It was grand but yet very intimate.”
The silver walls were actually made of the polyester film mylar to generate reflectivity, Kays said.
“For the design of the sanctuary itself, the idea was to make it a special space by using reflective mylar,” Kays said. “That could help generate a sense of spirit, which I think it did, along with the colors like the deep purple, and the dark red, trying to make it a space that did not feel like it was enclosed. Ron Harkavy’s wife, Iris, designed a wonderful tapestry for the opening of the Torah cradle.
“I think from the beginning Ron Harkavy articulated the reason they selected our firm was that they did not want a traditional synagogue,” he said. “They wanted a synagogue that spoke to the people and would be unique. Working with the committee and with their enthusiasm, and Ron Harkavy telling us they didn’t want just another synagogue, they wanted something that was unique to their congregation and their orthodox traditions, which is what led us to basically designing the building.”
Many buildings vie for the National Register of Historic Places, but few are selected. In order to be considered, a structure must be at least 50 years old. About a year ago, Mirvis knew 2020 would make the synagogue eligible so she started researching what it would take to achieve the honor. She worked directly with Kelsey Lampkin, a historic preservationist with the Memphis Area Association of Governments.
“I wrote the application,” Lampkin said. “We determined it was eligible for listing and the commission and preservation office agreed. Its architectural significance is very different from other synagogues and their architectural styles. The historical commission looks at a lot of houses of worship wanting historic status, and it is one of a kind and that’s part of the joy of documenting. It really stands out.”
Lampkin said inclusion as a national historic place is significant for researchers and historians who study Memphis houses of worship and Judaism.
“The important aspect is that this history is documented, so if anyone wants to research Jewish history in Memphis, this document will remain in the state historic archives, with photos and descriptions. It’s very important documentation.”
This is not the first time Anshei Sphard-Beth El Emeth has been honored for its design. In 1972, the building won the Award of Excellence for Design of Interiors by Architectural Record, which noted it had “appeal… to our senses and to the emotions these senses inspire.”
For Mirvis, working on the application was truly a labor of love. She has strong memories of the synagogue from years praying and celebrating there with her family.
“This preserves our history and tells our story,” Mirvis said. “We need to have more beauty in the world, and this is a beautiful building. A congregation is made up of people, but a building sometimes ties us to the past and celebrations and our prayers and everything that we’ve experienced as individuals is in the walls of this building.”
The registry was also especially meaningful for Kays, whose long and storied career includes receiving the 2013 Francis Gassner Award for contributions to architecture in Memphis. When he and Mah designed Anshei Sphard-Beth El Emeth, Kays was a young architect who felt fortunate to work on a unique project.
“I don’t think there’s any honor that goes above this one,” Kays said. “Part of that goes back to the sense of community at that time, and the camaraderie. It was a very uplifting experience for me to work with those folks.”
This honor bestowed upon the building at 120 East Yates Road is bittersweet. The property was recently sold. While the congregation awaits a new permanent structure, they are currently sharing space on the grounds and within Baron Hirsch Synagogue.