On July 4th, 1864, Major Alexander Hart, 5th Louisiana Regiment, received orders from Robert E. Lee to “take command of a detachment of 250 men to Staunton, Virginia, and thence, with all dispatch, to said command, wherever it may be, reporting to General J. A. Early.”
In 1876, after having moved from his family home in New Orleans, married a woman from Richmond, and reestablished himself in Staunton, Alexander Hart joined with other Jews in the community to form Temple House of Israel.
From member’s homes to the first temple was a matter of acquiring an old school building, the Hoover School, at 200 Kalorama Street, which still stands at the top of Market Street diagonally across from the Stonewall Jackson Hotel. Purchased in 1884, the first service was held there on February 1, 1885. Major Hart was president of the congregation, as well as its minister (a term applied then to a lay-leader). For the next 36 years regular Sabbath services, a religious school and other community events were held in that building. Temple House of Israel joined the Union for Reform Judaism (then the Union of American Hebrew Congregations) in 1885 and has maintained membership in the national Reform movement throughout the years.
In 1886, the congregation purchased land north of Staunton to be used as a cemetery. The first burial there was in 1887. This same cemetery, on what is now known as North Augusta Street, is still in use today.
The congregation soon outgrew the small building on Kalorama Street. A lot on North Market Street was purchased from Mary Baldwin College, and local [Baltimore?] architect S. Collins (nephew of T.J. Collins] was engaged to design the new building. The cornerstone, dated 1925, can be seen to the left of the main entrance on North Market Street and was set by the local Masonic lodge. Since that time, this unique building has been in continuous use by the Jewish community.
The design of the building is one of the few (if not the only) synagogues in the United States designed after the Moorish style. The Collins firm was responsible for many of the historic buildings that comprise downtown Staunton today. The building itself, and the treasured stained glass windows, as well as the ceramic tiles and other architectural details of the bima (the podium) contribute to the structure’s historic and architectural significance.
The stained glass windows, lights, and entry glass are themselves historically important. They were designed and constructed by Charles Connick Associates, of Boston. Connick was also responsible for such treasures as the Rose window in the Cathedral of St. John the Divine, in New York City. The firm’s work is considered second only to Tiffany in importance; THOI is one of very few structures in the world today that still has the full complement of original glass as it was installed. Unlike many historic buildings today, THOI is still used for the purpose for which it was designed. Preserving the integrity and the utility of the structure is a major concern of the congregation, and of the historic preservation community of Staunton.