"The three main pillars of a Synagogue are the House of Prayer (Beit Tefillah), House of Study (Beit Midrash), and the House of Gathering (Beit Knesset)," Diamond Schmitt Architects' Wen-ying Lu explains. We're at Toronto's Holy Blossom Temple, where an architectural renewal aims to breathe new vitality into Ontario's oldest Jewish congregation. Adding flexible and family-friendly new facilities to the prominent Bathurst Street Synagogue, the revitalization is intended to enhance the community-oriented programming of what has long been a venerable centre of Prayer and Study.
Once complete, the Diamond Schmitt-led revitalization will alter the face of the Temple, bridging two imposing concrete structures with a glassy and permeable atrium. It will be a conspicuous evolution, bringing a new aesthetic to the Temple's Ava Road frontage. Although parts of the space will be unrecognizably different, the new addition is the latest step in a continuous, 150-year process of transformation that has seen the Temple's built form reflect the changing congregation.
Established in 1856, Holy Blossom has roots in Downtown Toronto. The first congregations took place in a room above a Richmond Street drug store, while the first dedicated Synagogue was subsequently built on the southeast corner of Richmond and Victoria. That corner—which was later home to the Victoria Theatre until its demolition in 1956—is now the construction site for Great Gulf's Yonge + Rich Condos.
In 1897, the congregation moved to a new purpose-built Temple on Bond Street, which became Saint George's Greek Orthodox Church once Holy Blossom moved to its current Bathurst Street location in 1938.
Architecturally, the 1938 Sanctuary is notable for its pioneering use of concrete. The Temple was Canada's first institutional project built entirely of reinforced concrete, with the Chapman and Oxley design pushing the boundaries of 1930s engineering and design. The subtly ornate House of Prayer—which deftly combines Romanesque flourishes with a moderne aesthetic—is one of relatively few pre-war buildings of its kind worldwide.
Located just south of Eglinton, the Midtown Synagogue continued to grow with its congregation. As much of Toronto's Jewish population moved to Forest Hill from Downtown throughout the mid-20th century, a growing congregation necessitated the addition of a new school building. Designed by John B. Parkin Associates, the modernist structure—once again built using reinforced concrete—was completed in 1960.
Adding two floors of school rooms and a new, 400-person congregation hall, the mid-century addition brought a greatly expanded House of Study to the Temple. While the 1938 Sanctuary brought an appropriately ceremonial venue—with the reinforced concrete allowing for an open space unhindered by supporting columns—the 1960 school building helped make education a more vital element of the Temple's mandate, expanding the Temple's reach beyond prayer and ceremony. The inclusion of a school gave Holy Blossom stronger links to members' everyday lives, making it a more integral part of the modern community.
Now starting construction, the Diamond Schmitt-designed atrium will add a renewed House of Gathering to the Temple. As Lu explains, the space is flexibly designed to facilitate a wide range of community programming. Consultations with members of the congregation helped clarify the priorities for the new space, with a desire for "family friendly" spaces conducive to "bringing congregants together" widely expressed.
Places of worship are changing, Lu notes, describing a general evolution—evident across many faiths—towards spaces that supplement the ceremonial elements of spirituality with quotidian activity and casual community interactions. Anchored by a relaxed central lounge and a living wall, the atrium will be a "permeable, transparent space," says Lu. Surrounding the atrium, a selection of communal spaces characterize the addition. Some new, some reconstructed, many of the revamped facilities—which will include a Family Chapel and a Youth Lounge—are designed to host simchas and social gatherings.
From an architectural standpoint, the new atrium also serves to bridge two previously disjoined structures. "It was a very awkward interaction between the two buildings," Lu explains, describing the two linking corridors that connected the structures. While the corridors—now being demolished—channelled activity through a narrow loop, the atrium will provide a central gathering space to improve circulation between the school, administrative facilities, the Temple Library, the café, the judaica shop, and the historic Sanctuary.
At the south end of the atrium, a new front entrance will enliven the Ava Road frontage, leaving the Sanctuary doors as a ceremonial entry point. By creating a new entrance in what was once an unresolved space between the Sanctuary and the School, the Sanctuary is visually framed as an architectural highlight. With the Sanctuary's west wall carefully integrated into the atrium, the glassy, transparent structure will allow the 1938 façade to be a focal point of the space.
Negotiating the space between the 1938 Sanctuary and the 1960 School, Diamond Schmitt's atrium is designed to improve circulation through the facilities, while contributing a contemporary addition that respects its historic surroundings. "We didn't want to use exposed concrete," Lu explains, "since we wanted to allow that materiality to define the older structures." "We wanted to let the 1938 building breathe."
Targeting LEED Silver certification, the project's first phase will see new HVAC and electrical systems installed as the atrium is built out. As part of the second phase, a new landscaping program—appointed by DTAH—will take place alongside a full-scale restoration of the 1938 Sanctuary.
For Canada's largest Reform synagogue, the revitalization process signals a re-energized approach to the community. As Rabbi Yael Splansky told the Toronto Star ahead of the reconstruction process, "[w]e are reaching people in new ways." "All of the public work that we're doing and the mortar and brick work that we are preparing for is being matched by... a more communal and intimate way of connecting."
We will keep you updated as demolition wraps up, and construction begins in earnest. In the meantime, more information about the renewal process is available via the Temple's official website. Want to share your thoughts? Leave a comment in the space below this page.