By Scott L. Wands
(c) Connecticut Explored Inc. Summer 2005
The realms of art, social action, and the sacred intersect at Hartford’s Charter Oak Cultural Center. Located at 21 Charter Oak Avenue, within the walls of what was once the state’s first synagogue and later a Baptist church, the non-profit Charter Oak Cultural Center serves as an arts showcase for all of Hartford’s diverse communities and offers multicultural arts and education programming in its restored landmark building, the former Temple Beth Israel.
The Charter Oak Cultural Center’s history will always be closely intertwined with that of Hartford’s Jewish population. Jews did not receive the right to worship publicly in Connecticut until 1843; that year Beth Israel, the First Reform Jewish Congregation in Hartford, was formed. The Congregation, which became a formal entity in 1847, purchased and remodeled the former North Baptist Church on Main Street to serve as its first permanent house of worship in 1856. Named Touro Hall, the building was also rented out for public meetings and performances; and, since it held 1,500 people, for years it was the only place in Hartford large enough to accommodate the most famous performers of the day.
In 1876, the congregation built Temple Beth Israel on Charter Oak Avenue — the first building constructed specially as a synagogue in Connecticut. Designed by Hartford architect George Keller, the structure was an architectural gem containing beautiful stained glass windows and hand-stenciled wall coverings.
As the Jewish population once centered on Main and Front streets began to move to the suburbs, however, the congregation followed. In 1936, a new temple was built in West Hartford. The Calvary Baptist Church occupied the former temple until about 1972. In the 1970s, a group of Hartford-area residents started a campaign to restore the century-old building to its former state of prominence.
Today the building is a resource for the entire Hartford area. The former sanctuary has been brought back to life as a performance space, its walls restored with reproductions of the original stenciled designs, its windows once again filled with beautifully colored stained glass – including the original central rose window. Lost for a number of years, the rose window is rumored to have been salvaged from a junkyard. Once filled with the sounds of Jewish immigrants united in prayer, the space now reverberates with the sounds of contemporary dance and theater performances, town forum discussions, and poetry festivals. While many rows of the original pews remain, the space has been updated with tiered seating and a hardwood floor that is the envy of performance spaces across the city.
Underneath the auditorium, the Charter Oak Cultural Center houses two gallery spaces. Home to some of the most interesting and exciting art of display in Connecticut, the space has recently featured shows ranging from Fiber Revolution, an exhibition of textile art, to Views, art by Connecticut inmates. A free gallery opening occurs each month and features food and (often live) music.
The sacred will always remain a part of the structure, and the long-term exhibition The Way it Was: Recollections of Early Twentieth-Century Jewish Life in Hartford shows, through photographs and reminiscences, what it was like to grow up and live as a Jew in Connecticut’s capital city. One hundred seventh and eighth graders from area middle schools interviewed 18 senior citizens with long-standing ties to Congregation Beth Israel in 1996 to create the exhibition.
The Charter Oak Cultural Center is open year round. The gallery is open Monday through Friday from 10 AM to 5 PM and by appointment. Gallery admission is free. “Giraffes Can’t Dance: Spectrum in Motion’s Student Performance,” featuring original contemporary ballet based on the award-winning children’s book by Giles Andreae and Guy Parker-Rees, takes place on June 25, 2005, and “Passion Flamenca/ Flamenco Passion,” on June 25, 2005, is a performance by one of the premier U.S. Flamenco groups, the Val Ramos Flamenco Ensemble. For more information, call (860) 249-1207 or visit www.charteroakcenter.org.
Scott L. Wands was education coordinator for the Antiquarian & Landmarks Society. He last wrote “Understanding Homelessness in 1890s Hartford: ‘Had Too Much,‘” Feb/Mar/Apr 2004.
“Making Their Presence Known: Jews in Hartford,” Summer 2005