National Register of Historic Places Inventory – Temple Beth-El
Creator: United States Department of the Interior Heritage Conservation and Recreation Service
Subjects: Historic Designation, Corporate Records
Description: Description of the interior and exterior of Temple Beth-El, located at 3424 Woodward Avenue between Eliot and Erskine. Also known as Wayne State University Bonstelle Theatre.
Original Format: Other
Rights Management: Temple Beth-El
Contributor: Carlton Rolle
Transcript: The structure is located on the east side of Woodward Avenue between Eliot and Erskine streets and measures 155 feet in length and 85 feet in width. The second Temple Beth-El is a Beaux Arts Classical, domed structure erected in 1902-1903. The central, domed main block is abutted by shallow, gabled wings on the north and south while a third, pedimented extension projecting toward Woodward Avenue originally contained a portico in antis. The building is sheathed in smooth limestone on the front and sides while the less visible walls are of common brick. Ornate metal cresting’s edge the base of the drum and define the oculus of the shallow dome. In 1924 the temple was converted into a theater. At that time the portico was en¬closed, a marquis added to the facade, and an extension added to the rear. The interior was completely rebuilt to accommodate an Italian Renaissance style theater auditorium and lobby, so that no part of the original interior survives today.
Detroit architect Albert Kahn designed Temple Beth-El for the Reform Congregation of which he was a member. Congregation Beth-El (House of God), Detroit's and Michigan's first Jewish congregation, was organized at the home of Sarah and Isaac Cozens on September 22, 1850. For a decade meetings were held in private homes or in rooms over store buildings. The congregation worshiped in converted Protestant churches until 1902 when the Beth-El Society built this structure. The Beaux Arts synagogue, dedicated on September 18, 1903, remained in use by the congregation until 1922 when the northward growth of the business district from the downtown area made the site undesirable. Noted theater architect C. Howard Crane remodeled the former synagogue as a theater in 1924-25, after Jessie Bonstelle, managing director of the Garrick Theatre, purchased the building. From 1925 to 1932, the building served as the Bonstelle Playhouse and presented programs of musical comedy, drama and the dance. Following Ms. Bonstelle's death in 1932, the building became the Mayfair motion picture theater.
In 1951 Wayne State University rented it for its theater program, purchasing the building five years later. A marker in the foyer of the building, presented by the Jewish Historical Society of Michigan, recalls the building's historic significance as the former synagogue of Congregation Beth-El, Michigan's oldest Jewish congregation. The oldest synagogue structure in Detroit, the 1902-1903 Temple Beth-El is also significant in that it was one of the first American synagogues planned as a total unit to accommodate the specific requirements of modern-day Jewish worship and the cultural and social uses to which a modern synagogue would be put.