The seismic retrofit challenge
The Loma Prieta earthquake of 1989 was a wakeup call for San Francisco. With brick buildings suddenly rubble in the streets, the City of San Francisco put new, more stringent seismic safety standards in place for unreinforced masonry buildings like Sherith Israel. Many historic religious communities faced a dire choice—do the mandated work or close their doors.
For Sherith Israel there was never a choice. As a community, we took on our greatest challenge since our founding in 1851—a multi-million dollar campaign to enable us to comply with the City’s mandate.
Enhancing safety, preserving beauty
The difficulty of the financial challenge was matched by the complexity of the architectural and engineering challenge: preserving the unique beauty of our sanctuary while meeting the City’s requirements. Our design team—ELS Architecture and Urban Design, and the engineers at Wiss, Janney, Elstner Associates—proved up to the task.
Using state-of-the-art, computer-aided design technology, their engineering solution combines a variety of structural elements with the innovative use of cutting-edge materials to comply completely with the City’s safety standards. Importantly, it also preserves the integrity of the sanctuary’s magnificent interior.
What we’ve achieved so far
Supported by $8 million in individual and foundation gifts—the largest outpouring of generosity in Sherith Israel’s history—we began construction on April 19, 2010, the day after the 104th anniversary of the 1906 quake. We completed the first phase of the project in March 2011. The initial phase included the most important seismic work:
- 54 center cores strengthen the walls from within.
- A parapet bond beam around the roofline ties the cores into a strong, but flexible structure.
- Floor-to-wall ties add structural integrity.
We also repaired and beautified the sanctuary.
- The Rose window and the Prophet windows facing California Street were cleaned and restored, revealing colors no one had seen for a generation.
- Damaged interior surfaces were repaired and repainted.
- After 108 years of wear, the original carpet was replaced with new, identically woven carpet.
Our home is safer than ever and more beautiful than it has been in a generation. In 2012, Sherith Israel was listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
The remaining work
As much as we have done, additional work remains to honor our commitment to the City of San Francisco:
- A tension-tie system in the attic, made from nitinol, an elastic nickel-titanium alloy, will make the building more resilient in a major quake.
- Pilasters (buttresses) will strengthen the north wall behind the organ.
- The foundation will be upgraded to ensure the entire structure is well supported.
In addition, other improvements will be made: ADA-compliance work will improve access to the bimah and other areas of the sanctuary. And the drum of the dome will be repainted to complement the Colusa sandstone exterior.
Meeting the challenge
We have always seen ourselves as stewards of a wonderful legacy. Thanks to the generosity of our congregants and friends in the larger San Francisco community, we are fulfilling our commitment to the City of San Francisco and future generations of Jews. We have strengthened and beautified our building. With your help, we will finish the task.