Seattle Now & Then: Bikur Cholim synagogue, now the Langston Hughes Performing Arts Institute

(click and click again to enlarge photos)

THEN: This rare historical exterior image of Bikur Cholim synagogue, undated but likely from the mid-20th century, conveys its commanding, theatrical presence, evident since the building’s dedication in 1915. Details can be found in the 2013 book “Family of Strangers: Building a Jewish Community in Washington State” and the digital Washington Jewish Museum at (University of Washington Special Collections, negative #40180, Sam Prottas photograph collection, PH Coll 883.7, courtesy Washington State Jewish Historical Society)
NOW: The Jewish Star of David no longer tops today’s Langston Hughes Performing Arts Institute. Here it showcases 60 teenage stars (and staff) during a rehearsal for August productions of “Uncle Willy’s Chocolate Factory.” They are joined on the sidewalk by two-dozen Jewish family members, including several whose bar mitzvahs were held inside when the building was Bikur Cholim synagogue. (Jean Sherrard)

(Published in Seattle Times online on Sept. 26, 2019,
and in print on Sept. 29, 2019)

A Central District landmark with a legacy of cultivating community
By Clay Eals

Given the theatrical aspect of religious rituals, I was not surprised to learn that the primary architect of one of Seattle’s more stately spiritual edifices – originally the home for the Bikur Cholim orthodox Jewish congregation – was America’s foremost theater designer, Bernard Marcus Priteca.

The architect of the famed West Coast playhouses built for Alexander Pantages, along with Seattle’s long-gone Orpheum and long-closed Coliseum theaters and still-surviving Admiral Theatre, Priteca was Scotland-born into a family of eastern European Jewish heritage. He arrived in Seattle in 1909, and his architectural contributions to the Bikur Cholim synagogue came, astonishingly, when he was not yet 24. Most of his theater work lay soon ahead.

Bikur Cholim (bee-KURR hole-EEM, with a rough “h”) means to visit and aid the sick, with a focus on providing burial care. Organizing in the 1890s, Seattle’s Bikur Cholim congregation alighted at several sites before purchasing land at the southeast corner of 17th Avenue South and Yesler Way, the location of our “Then” image. After a lower floor took shape in 1910, Priteca designed the rest, and the structure was dedicated in 1915. The Seattle Times termed it “the largest and most magnificent temple of worship of the Jewish faith in the West.”

Steeped in Byzantine architectural style, with tan brick and white terra-cotta details, this commanding visual landmark still looks westward from Seattle’s Central District, illustrating the power of community and how it can change.

In its initial incarnation, it hosted Bikur Cholim for some 55 years until congregants migrated south to Seward Park. For decades, it was a key destination along Seattle’s “kosher canyon” during the “Shabbat stroll” undertaken Saturdays by Jewish families, says Lisa Kranseler, director of the Washington State Jewish Historical Society.

“Everything stemmed from here,” adds Mel Genauer, who recalls first walking to the synagogue as an 8-year-old in 1950. “It was great unity here. We always stuck by each other.” (See video below.)

For the past nearly 50 years, however, the building has been under city ownership, providing a largely African American constituency with a variety of programs, including theater. Known briefly as Yesler-Atlantic Community Center, it took on a succession of names (most recently Langston Hughes Performing Arts Institute), all of which have saluted the prolific New York writer and activist Langston Hughes (1902-1967).

The print date for this “Now & Then” installment coincides with the onset of Rosh Hashanah, the celebration of the Jewish New Year. The hope and introspection of the holiday may be reinforced by lyrics from an opera by Hughes that he shared during a 1946 lecture in Seattle:

I dream a world where men
No other man will scorn.
Where love will bless the earth
And peace its paths adorn.


To see Jean Sherrard’s 360-degree video of the NOW prospect and compare it with the THEN photo, and to hear this column read aloud by Clay Eals, check out our Seattle Now & Then 360 version of the column!

Besides the extras below, please see a complementary online exhibit of the Washington State Jewish Historical Society, as well as the Aug. 20, 1980, report on the successful Seattle landmark designation of the building.

Below are (1) two photos of a wedding inside Bikur Cholim synagogue (2) a video reflection by Mel Genauer and (3) in chronological order, 13 clippings from The Seattle Times online archive (available via Seattle Public Library) that, among others, were helpful in the preparation of this column. Enjoy!

A mid-20th century wedding at Bikur Cholim synagogue (Courtesy Washington State Jewish Historical Society)
A mid-20th century wedding at Bikur Cholim synagogue (Courtesy Washington State Jewish Historical Society)
VIDEO: Mel Genauer, longtime member of Bikur Cholim synagogue in Seattle, reflects Aug. 15, 2019, on the role of the building in his lifetime. It is now Langston Hughes Performing Arts Institute. (Clay Eals)
April 19, 1905, Seattle Times, page 7
Sept. 20, 1906, Seattle Times, page 4
Jan. 18, 1914, Seattle Times, page 15
June 7, 1916, Seattle Times, page 16
Sept. 7, 1919, Seattle Times, page 15
Sept. 28, 1924, Seattle Times, page 5
Oct. 17, 1945, Seattle Times, page 15
Feb. 11, 1969, Seattle Times, page 29
July 15, 1970, Seattle Times, page 19
March 23, 1972, Seattle Times, page 59
June 18, 1972, Seattle Times, page 14
July 9, 1972, Seattle Times, page 184
July 14, 1972, Seattle Times, page 16


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