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840 Vernon Avenue: Our Building

This piece, written by Am Shalom President, Dr. Michael Blum, was originally published in the January/February 2020 KOL.

Though many of us paid it little attention, there was a big anniversary in Glencoe last year!

The building that houses our beloved congregation, Am Shalom, celebrated its 90th birthday, having been built as the first Jewish building north of Chicago. The formal dedication of the initial site of North Shore Congregation Israel (NSCI) on March 2nd, 1928, commenced at 8:15pm and was attended by Rev. James Austin Richards of the Winnetka Congregational Church, with speeches by Rabbis Solomon B. Freehof, Gerson B. Levi and Louis L. Mann.

According to a local newspaper at the time, the “imposing place of worship” cost $275,000 and was designed by Chicago architect Alfred S. Alschuler, the president of the congregation at the time and a noted religious institution architect. Later, when the building was expanded in 1952 to include a school and library wing, the architect for the addition was his son, Alfred S. Alschuler, Jr.

The article describes the plans as calling for a “moderately low structure of sweeping longitudinal roof lines and free use of curves in windows and entrances.” It mentions that the “smokestack” would be hidden from view in a “towering minaret” at the north end of the building! Also mentioned was the “unusual” feature that all of the activities, both social and religious, would be housed under one roof, and that the “assembly hall” (our Social Hall), with its balcony, would seat more people (700) than its auditorium (400) (our Sanctuary). Lastly, it mentions the “small domed tower” in the center of the structure that contained a small lobby and the stairway leading to the balcony (now leading to the upstairs classrooms). The original Social Hall also had a basketball court.

I reached out to our Founding Rabbi, Harold Kudan, who was able to fill in much history of Am Shalom for me to share.

That congregation was initially named the North Shore Branch of Chicago Sinai Congregation, and remained in the building until the 1960’s, when it began moving to its current site on Sheridan Road. Rabbi Kudan joined NSCI in 1962, when the Sheridan Road building was about to be built. The new building and the Vernon building were both used from 1962-1972, as NSCI had over 1,900 families. They had religious school in both buildings. Friday and Saturday services on Sheridan Road, and overflow services for High Holy Days at the Vernon building. Some weddings and B’nai Mitzvah were also held on Vernon.

Am Shalom was formed in June 1972, led by Rabbi Kudan. Stan Shuman, Am Shalom’s first President, had the idea of Am Shalom purchasing the Vernon building for use as a “multiple use facility,” including, among other groups, the Boy Scouts and Glencoe Family Services, as well as the new home of Am Shalom. That idea didn't come to be, and NSCI sold the building to the Willows Academy for Girls.

The first home for Am Shalom services was at Sager Solomon Schechter school on Lee Avenue near Northbrook Court. For a number of years, it met in many locations, including the North Shore Methodist Church, the Women’s Library Club and various homes. In the early years, High Holy Days Services were held at the Winnetka Congregational Church. Rabbi Kudan recalls the minister warning that, in the event of a funeral, the church might not be available at the last minute. He recalls praying hard for the good health of their congregants, particularly during the High Holy Days! (Rabbi Kudan recently saw the current minister of the Winnetka church who conceded that he would not have placed that restriction on the availability of the church for our use). Later, HHD services were held at Central School in Glencoe.

As an aside, during the remodeling of the Tower in the 1990’s, a time capsule was found buried in the wall with a paper containing signatures of all of the workmen who had participated in the 1928 construction, expressing the joy they felt in the opportunity to build the Temple.

In 1982, John Nathan, an Am Shalom Board member, mentioned that his congregation was looking to purchase a new home to a Mr. Connolly, who represented the Willows Academy. When Connolly offered to Nathan that the Willows Academy was for sale, Nathan, who was unaware of the history of the building, initially rejected the concept! Fortunately, he relayed this to the rest of the Am Shalom Board, who were very excited by the idea. Only one Board member voted against the purchase, but, after the vote carried, he raised his hand and offered the first contribution!

Our building is a small replica of KAM Isaiah Israel synagogue on the South Side. The windows depict 5 of the 12 tribes. The sixth window is Psalm 43: “Set forth thy light and thy truth.” A theme throughout the Sanctuary is water, depicted by a wavy line, which can be seen throughout the Sanctuary.

Rabbi Kudan praised the major renovation of 11 years ago, which changed the entire dynamic of the building. He thinks it is “fabulous” and “transformed” the building into this wonderful facility.

Obviously, there are many other stories, but space is limited. Let us all wish our Temple building a Happy Anniversary!

Tue, June 18 2024 12 Sivan 5784