Charter Oak Cultural Center is housed in Connecticut’s oldest synagogue building. Built in 1876, this building was born out of the struggle for religious freedom- a letter petitioning the state legislature was required to allow its construction as a non-Congregationalist house of worship. Even though the first mention of a Jewish presence in Hartford occurs in court records dating back to 1659, it wasn’t until 1843 that a special enactment of the Connecticut Legislature provided that Jews wishing to form religious societies had the same rights, powers, and privileges as Christians. Hartford’s first synagogue, Congregation Beth Israel, whose founders had petitioned the State to pass that special legislative act, was established that year.
The first location of the congregation was at 942 Main Street (now the Residence Inn building). It was known as Touro Hall, but was originally the North Baptist Church. The congregation remained at the location from 1856 to 1876. In 1876, Congregation Beth Israel constructed its own building, the first synagogue to be built in Connecticut (pictured above). The eclectic, Victorian-Romanesque style building is an unusual example of the work of Hartford architect George Keller, who designed the Soldiers and Sailors Memorial and the old Hartford High School. The building was home to Congregation Beth Israel until 1936, and then to the Calvary Baptist Church until 1972.
After that point, the building stood abandoned until the late 1970s, when a plan by the City of Hartford to demolish it elicited a strong response from the community and led to the mobilization of a small group of Jewish leaders who saved this Hartford gem. This group formed the Charter Oak Temple Restoration Association, Inc. with the goal of rescuing the temple in the interest of historic preservation and focusing on its use, not as a house of worship, but a neighborhood community center. They sought to reaffirm the Jewish engagement in Hartford, while serving a multi-ethnic urban neighborhood which would become a vital part of the expanding downtown revival. The building was restored and renovated and its original stencil work, pews and fixtures remain. The Hebrew writing above our Bimah means “know before whom you stand.” The building was placed on the National Register of Historic Monuments and was transformed into a secular multi-cultural arts center in 1979. The Charter Oak Temple Restoration Association, also known as Charter Oak Cultural Center, saved Connecticut’s oldest synagogue structure from demolition.