Developer J. Fisher eyes new apartments next to Utah’s oldest, now defunct, synagogue

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J. Fisher Companies is preparing to build apartments next to Utah’s oldest synagogue as it continues its activity despite the ongoing commercial real estate downturn that hasn’t spared Salt Lake City.

The Davis County developer filed for a permit to demolish a nonconforming addition on the back of the 134-year-old B’Nai Israel Temple, which is one of Downtown’s oldest existing structures but which hasn’t been used as a place of worship since the 1970s.

But in its request to the city’s Historic Landmark Commission, the firm noted it is preparing to build a new apartment building nearby and appears prepared to maintain the historic structure.

“Demolishing the noncontributing portion of the synagogue will allow space to build an apartment building on the surrounding parcels,” J. Fisher representatives wrote to the city this week.

Dedicated in 1891, the B’Nai Israel Temple was a place of worship for Utah’s Jewish pioneers, who arrived along with early LDS pioneers in the 1840s.

The building precedes the Salt Lake Temple and Salt Lake City and County Building. 

The community nominated the building for inclusion on the National Register of Historic Places in 1978.

The structure was designed to resemble the Fasanenstrasse synagogue in Berlin, which was burned by Nazis in 1938 and ultimately destroyed during World War II in 1943.

According to historian John S. Smith of the of the Utah State Historical Society: “In deciding that their temple should be a replica of the Great Synagogue of Berlin, Utah’s Jews made a gesture to the original homeland of their most number. The architect chosen to execute the design was Philip Meyer, a nephew of Utah magnate Frederick H. Auerbach, who was brought from Germany to work with local architect Henry Monheim. Meyer later returned to Germany where he became an architect in the service of the Prussian state and of the Imperial household, and much later, sadly, ended his life in a Nazi death camp in 1943.”

The concrete block addition was added in 1929 to house a kitchen, social area and classrooms on the temple’s east end.

According to the 1978 filing, the addition “has no merit,” and that’s what would be demolished if the application is approved.

Fisher representatives didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment on Tuesday. 

Documents show the J. Fisher CEO Owen Fisher listed as an owner of the property along with furniture retailer HB Workplaces CEO David Colling.

Those documents are dated August 2023. The property was listed for sale later that year, but county records show Colling is still the owner of the building.

HB Workplaces lists its Salt Lake City address as the B’Nai Israel Temple.

It’s not clear what the building will be used for if it’s preserved, though it has been used for a variety of purposes after it ceased being a congregation in the 1970s, including a restaurant.

J. Fisher developed a 158-unit apartment project one block east of the temple. That development has a roughly 0.3-acre surface parking lot on it. HB Workplaces also owns 0.3 acres of surface parking immediately south of the temple.

J. Fisher has remained active despite the icy landscape in commercial real estate.

The company broke ground last week on a new project in Ogden.

It is challenging a decision by the Salt Lake City Planning Commission to deny a project at 250 S. 200 E. due to its lack of height.

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Posted by Taylor Anderson

Taylor Anderson grew up near Chicago and made his way West to study journalism at the University of Montana. He's been a staff writer for the Chicago Tribune, Bend Bulletin and Salt Lake Tribune. A move from Portland, Oregon, to Salt Lake City opened his eyes to the importance of good urban design for building strong neighborhoods. He lives on the border of the Liberty Wells and Ballpark neighborhoods.