Written by Len Wexler
As the number of people attending Or Shalom services grew in the early 90s, it became obvious that we could no longer keep meeting in a house, and a building committee was formed. In late 1992, by some miracle, Len Ryant discovered the old Highland Reform Presbyterian church at 10th and Fraser. It was affordable, not only because it was in a state of disrepair, but also because as an existing place of worship, we didn’t have to comply with any of the current zoning and parking requirements. The building search committee quickly transformed itself into a renovation committee. Because enthusiasm was high, it looked like the renovation might be largely done with volunteer work by our own members and donations from our supporters. In this spirit, I volunteered my services as an architect.
Even in the best of circumstances, Or Shalom is a spontaneous and somewhat anarchic organization, so I knew I was in for a challenge! After meetings with all concerned, I knew that our production budget was quite limited, and so my goal was to produce a practice design that would give us a comfortable and functional space. The only part of the building worth preserving was the existing sanctuary, which had a very good feeling, a high ceiling and the original wood paneling. The rest of the building was extremely substandard. It had a rotting wooden exterior staircase, only one awful bathroom, no hot water, poor heating and a kitchen that was not much more than a sink. The basement was only partly finished, and there was no mezzanine.
My original designs included a ground level entrance, complete wheelchair access, and a completely refurbished basement with moveable walls for classroom use. The only “designer” features I incorporated were the curved top window in the mezzanine, the stylized menorah at the top of the tower, and the curved copper clad canopy over the main entrance. However, Or Shalom’s financial situation led the new Board to scrap the original renovation plans and make only essential repairs. Although it was discouraging to scrap the original plans after so much work, I agreed to oversee this process on a consulting basis. The new Board became very active on the renovation project, and one of its members, Isaac Thau, eventually became almost a full time project manager, finding contractors, getting bids, and generally making sure the work proceeded as necessary at minimum cost. It wasn’t long into the scaled down version of the project before the committee realized that most parts of the original design really were essential, and bit by bit these were added back into the project. In the end, the cost was close to the original renovation budget, but the design evolved piecemeal as construction proceeded and as individuals intervened with financial contributions to make additional elements possible. The biggest design difference from the original plan was the deletion of the new stairwell addition. The main entrance remained at the second floor level and a new exterior concrete staircase was built. A wooden ramp provided access for the disabled at the rear, but the wheelchair elevator was left out — an unfortunate cost-cutting compromise.
Despite all good intentions, our community was not blessed with large numbers of people skilled in construction work or in manual labour! Thus, the final cost ended up close to the original $250,000 budget. Unfortunately, adding things back into the design piecemeal as construction proceeded meant that some aspects of the renovation were not completed in the best way. For instance, it was too late to install a quiet heating system and moveable partitions for the school,
The project was substantially completed in the spring of 1995. Although Isaac Thau and I were exhausted by it, I think we were pleased that we had been able to accomplish as much as we did. Without Isaac’s daring to push the renovation beyond the limits of the original patch-up version, the bayit might have been a rather miserable place. Over time, Geoffrey Katz has contributed landscaping skills and the Aesthetics Committee has coordinated modifications. Glottman-Simpson donated the structural engineering design and Arnold Nemetz & Associates provided electrical engineering services at a reduced rate. Yonelda & Associates provided the mechanical engineering drawings for the originally planned heating system, and Pacific Protective donated our security system. Many other individuals and groups donated time, materials or labour to the renovation and were never formally acknowledged. I know that these included Andy Katz, Allan Morinis, Reva Malkin, Al Pasternak, Avi Dolgin, and Alan Posthuma, but I am certain that I have forgotten to name many others.
When we gather in the shul now and in the future, I hope we’ll remember those who worshipped I this building before us, and those who worked so hard to transform 10th and Fraser into the holy space that it is today.
[Our beloved brother Len Wexler wrote this piece sometime in 2000 and died after a long struggle with lymphoma on April 6, 2002. His partner Inneke Aardema and daughter Annalise Wexler carry on his spark within our community.]