Ask McGehee: Historic Marker at the southeast corner of Government and Warren streets

From 1907 until 1952, Alabama’s oldest Jewish congregation worshipped in a temple located at the southeast corner of Government and Warren streets. However, this was the congregation’s fourth home.

Officially known as the Congregation of the Gates of Heaven and Society of the Friends of the Needy, the group purchased its own sanctified burial space in Magnolia Cemetery in 1841 and officially incorporated three years later. This makes it the oldest Jewish congregation in Alabama.

In 1846, they began meeting in Turnverein Hall on St. Emanuel Street, between Government and Church streets. “Turnverein” derives from the German word for gymnast or tumbler. German immigrants had established gymnastic clubs in various parts of the country. All of the new synagogue’s 50 members were European, and most were German. The interior was described as being “in a style of simplicity, without any ostentation or gaudy display of architecture.” No images of the building survive.

Jackson Street 1852

Due to a growing population, within six years, the congregation moved into the former Unitarian Church on Jackson Street, north of St. Michael. A newspaper article of the time described the interior as “spacious and furnished in a superb style.

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A magnificent chandelier gives brilliance almost equal to day to the interior.”

Although well lit, the building had a defective heating stove which sent the structure up in flames in December of 1856. A Greek Revival mode replacement, similar to Government Street Presbyterian Church, was dedicated in 1858.

For more than 50 years, this synagogue occupied a prominent spot in a neighborhood that contained Presbyterian and Baptist churches. By the early 1900s, the area was changing. In 1906, members of Jackson Street Presbyterian Church formed Central Presbyterian Church, on Dauphin and Ann streets, while St. Francis Street Baptist moved to Government Street and became First Baptist.

Government Street 1906-1907

The Jewish congregation selected a lot on Government Street and hired the Mobile architectural firm of Watkins and Hutchison to create an unusual French Romanesque facade of light-colored brick accented with Georgia granite. The new temple was dedicated in June 1907. According to the newspaper, its “main auditorium was kept delightfully cool by breezes that were wafted from a ton of ice in the basement.”

By the late 1940s, the structure was showing its age. Members considered renovations, which architect Platt Roberts estimated would cost $20, 000. In January 1952, the temple board voted to sell the property, and to much surprise, it was purchased in less than three months by a used car dealer named George Wilkinson.

Spring Hill Avenue 1955

In October of 1952, Government Street Temple was deconsecrated. The congregation worshipped in Government Street Presbyterian Church and Dauphin Way United Methodist Church, until Spring Hill Avenue Temple was completed in 1955.

Wilkinson converted the deconsecrated temple into a showroom for used cars, and installed a musical system, which automatically played stacks of records. In the center of the space, a revolving platform, holding a shiny vehicle, slowly turned to the music. In 1956, the building gave way to a chain motel.

Tom McGehee

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