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Historic Hartford chapel is demolished after years-long battle

Crews spent Wednesday demolishing a chapel on Ward Street in Hartford which has been the subject of a years-long battle. Congregation Beth Israel moved ahead with plans to tear down the historic funeral chapel after protests from Connecticut state and city leaders, as well as some members of the synagogue.
Abigail Brone
Connecticut Public
Crews spent Wednesday demolishing Deborah Chapel on Ward Street in Hartford, which has been the subject of a years-long battle. Congregation Beth Israel moved ahead with plans to tear down the historic funeral chapel after protests from Connecticut state and city leaders, as well as some members of the synagogue.

A historic funeral chapel in Hartford is now just a pile of bricks and wood.

Crews spent Wednesday demolishing the 137-year-old Deborah Chapel, which has been the subject of a years-long battle.

Congregation Beth Israel, a West Hartford synagogue, moved ahead with plans to tear down the chapel after protests from some members of the synagogue. City and state officials had also gotten involved in the matter.

Deborah Chapel, in the Congregation Beth Israel cemetery at Zion Hill, has been vacant since the early 1990s, synagogue leaders said. The chapel was built in 1886 as a mortuary. With the first Jewish funeral homes opening in the 1940s, the chapel was no longer needed, leaders said.

By removing the chapel, the congregation said it can plan for additional graves on the land.

“The Deborah Chapel was built at a time when Jews needed a place to prepare their loved ones for burial," Rabbi Michael Pincus said in a statement. "That time has long passed. A building is a collection of bricks and stones assembled with purpose and laden with memories — it is not inherently holy — only the work that was done there gave it its holiness."

Congregant Mark Slitt advocated for the preservation of the chapel and was present for the early stages of the demolition.

“Beth Israel is better than this," he said in an interview Wednesday. "This does not represent Beth Israel; we are better than this. Do not. Do not judge us based on this act of demolition. We are better than that. And I'm sorry that this happened.”

Congregation Beth Israel plans to preserve the cornerstone as part of a memorial garden on the site of the chapel. Synagogue leaders say they're donating a selection of bricks and stone from the building for a restoration project at the congregation’s previous synagogue building.

Wednesday's demolition marks the end of a lengthy battle over the chapel, which was declared one of the country's most endangered places in 2022by the National Trust for Historic Preservation. The organization said that historians determined the chapel was a "rare and early American example of an intact Jewish funerary structure" and represented the "strong leadership of women within 19th-century Jewish religious and communal organizations."

Congregation Beth Israel said it was open to the building's relocation and removal and starting in 2008 offered to sell it for $1. Leaders considered offers, but not one proposal demonstrated that backers had "adequate resources to locate the building."

Beth Israel had sought a demolition permit since 2019.

Connecticut Attorney General William Tong took on the case to save the chapel back in March under the state's statute to protect against unreasonable destruction of historic buildings.

But the National Park Service determined the Deborah Chapel was never actually listed as a historic landmark in the Frog Hollow district it’s located in.

The attorney general's office said that meant it no longer had jurisdiction in the matter and had to let go of the case.

The Hartford City Council recently passed a resolutionasking the congregation to reconsider demolition and to work with the city to save the chapel.

On Wednesday, neighborhood resident Jesse Buchanan stopped at the demolition scene. He passes the chapel on his daily commute and was surprised to see it come down. A property manager, Buchanan tries to reuse historic pieces of old building in his work. He was hoping to find pieces of wood or brick in the piles.

“It's neat to preserve some of the old craftsmanship," he said. "I mean, unfortunately, you can't build like they did back then anymore, for time reasons and material reasons."

New England Public Media’s Nirvani Williams contributed to this report.

Abigail is Connecticut Public's housing reporter, covering statewide housing developments and issues, with an emphasis on Fairfield County communities. She received her master's from Columbia University in 2020 and graduated from the University of Connecticut in 2019. Abigail previously covered statewide transportation and the city of Norwalk for Hearst Connecticut Media. She loves all things Disney and cats.

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