Exeter Synagogue, Devon

Restoration and modernisation of 18th C Grade II* listed synagogue.

Exeter Synagogue is one of the hidden gems of Exeter.

Built in 1764 and remodelled in 1836, the synagogue in Exeter is the third oldest active Jewish place of worship in the UK. It is listed Grade II*. Badly damaged during the last war, it suffered from poor repair work and subsequent deterioration of the fabric and fittings. The upper storey of the front elevation has been irretrievably lost and post war buildings close it in on all sides.

Matters came to a head when the lantern providing the main source of light to the interior again started leaking. This had been patched up with standard windows and the light-well squared off in plasterboard, with the loss of all original detailing. A plastic laylight had been set at ceiling level.

The decision was taken to renew the lantern with the help of funding from English Heritage and the City Council. Evidence remained of its original elongated octagonal plan and the replacement was designed after comparison with other surviving contemporary lanterns in the city, particularly at the Devon & Exeter Institute. The light well was reshaped to match the lantern and a light frieze moulding introduced at the junction with the main ceiling. Double glazing was introduced to reduce condensation, but carefully detailed to conceal taped edges and avoid oversize glazing bars.

During work on the lantern it became evident that the remaining building fabric was in poor condition and in particular that the fine interior fittings were at grave risk. The ark was detached from the rear wall and in danger of collapse, the panelling at the rear of the stalls had been lost and many of the joinery fittings were damaged. The timber ground floor was rotten in places and the building was damp. Ventilation had been compromised by the earlier repairs and surrounding development. A specialist examination of the decorative paintwork revealed a fascinating history and a potentially brilliant colour scheme behind the blackened varnishes.

A new programme of renovation was carried out, involving careful phasing between structural work, joinery repairs and paintwork restoration, complicated by the delicacy of the fittings and the tiny working space available.

The niche behind the ark was found to be saturated with water and its supporting lintol, dangerously rotten, was replaced. The ark itself was taken apart and the separate components repaired and reinforced before paint restoration and gilding. The stalls were overhauled, the rear panelling reinstated and regrained, book rests, arm rests and other fittings refixed.

Samples of the decorative coatings were examined under a microscope, revealing up to 29 layers of paint, and a detailed historical report prepared on earlier colour schemes before the paint restoration could proceed.

At the same time exterior repairs were carrried out and services upgraded. Central heating was introduced, to control temperature and humidity, with radiators concealed under the seating. Low voltage lighting was discreetly positioned in the ark to illuminate the scrolls. A new disabled wc was formed and a new kitchenette, to cater for congregation and visitors.

The renovated interior has not only regained its original qualities of light and colour but also benefits from new environmental controls and service convenience. It has been transformed from a dark and musty space into one of richness of finishes and freshness of atmosphere.

The front door case has been regrained, but restoration of the remainder of the facade remains a project for the future.

The restoration would not have been possible without the very active support of the congregation, not only with donations and fund raising, but also in practical matters such as decoration, electrical work and ongoing maintenance. There is a strong commitment to making the building as accessible as possible to the public, with a programme of publicity, events and school visits (4,000 children per year).

Visitors to the building are overwhelmed to find such a beautiful interior hiding in such an unprepossessing location. Only the entrance door gives a clue as to what lies behind.

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