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First Lady Visits Historic Synagogue, Movie House

Preservation: Trip to L.A. promotes White House drive to save key landmarks. Getty Trust gives $1.1 million in support of nationwide project.

December 11, 1998|JOSEPH TREVINO and CAITLIN LIU | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

First Lady Hillary Rodham Clinton visited a historic synagogue in Boyle Heights on Thursday and an ornate downtown movie house to promote a White House initiative dedicated to preserving historic American sites.

Clinton's stop in Los Angeles was one of several on behalf of the Save America's Treasures campaign, an initiative of the White House Millennium Council, chaired by the first lady.

Last week Clinton was in New York to visit Louis Armstrong's archives and in the Boston area for Henry Wadsworth Longfellow's house and the African Meeting House. Today she plans to tour San Francisco's Conservatory of Flowers in Golden Gate Park.

The Breed Street Shul is the last remaining synagogue in Boyle Heights, once a center of Los Angeles' Jewish community. The Los Angeles Theater, built in 1931, was the last palatial movie house constructed on Broadway.

On Thursday afternoon, Clinton stood in front of the dilapidated synagogue and addressed more than 500 people who gathered outside.

"This shul and the work we are doing together to preserve it for future generations is an important statement," she said. "We believe that there must be continuity between generations."

Boyle Heights, Clinton said, always has been a community for immigrants.

"Boyle Heights immigrants today can think back to those immigrants 60 to 70 years ago who did not speak English--they spoke Yiddish," she said. "In honoring this particular building, we honor the past."

At the synagogue, it was announced that the J. Paul Getty Trust will award a $1.1-million grant to the National Trust for Historic Preservation. The grant will support as many as 25 model projects throughout the United States that are part of the Save America's Treasures campaign.

The Breed Street shul is the recipient of a $15,000 grant from the Getty to allow for emergency repairs to the structure, damaged during last year's winter storms. Built in 1923, the synagogue was an integral part of the flourishing Jewish community from the 1920s to the 1950s, when Boyle Heights was home to about 90,000 Jews, then the largest Jewish population west of Chicago.

As the Jewish community moved to other areas, so did the synagogue's worshipers. By the late 1970s, the congregation wasn't able to gather a minyan of 10 men to pray.

The congregation ceased services in 1993, when the last rabbi of the Congregation of Talmud Torah wanted to raze the building and sell the property. Last July the City Council voted to buy the synagogue and turn it over to the Jewish Historical Society.

The shul has great personal significance to several City Council members. Councilman Hal Bernson's Bar Mitzvah was held there, and Councilwoman Jackie Goldberg's aunt, uncle and cousins were members of the congregation. Councilman Mike Feuer's mother grew up a few blocks away.

After Clinton spoke at the synagogue, she addressed a crowd at the Los Angeles Theater, which is one of the magnificent historic theaters in the city. Designed by S. Charles Lee Charles, its splendid French Baroque interior, with chandeliers, murals and paintings, are considered unmatched by any other construction of its kind in Los Angeles.

An album to raise funds for the Save America's Treasures campaign is scheduled to be released in May. The retrospective of voices and songs is intended to form a musical tapestry of the nation's history. Plans for the musical tribute treasury were announced Thursday at the Los Angeles Theater.

"Sing, America: A Celebration of America and its Music," will include songs by Frank Sinatra, Elvis Presley, Bob Dylan, Stevie Wonder, Louis Armstrong and Ella Fitzgerald and the New York Philharmonic. A book and television show are also planned.

The proceeds will be used to preserve and restore historic sites and memorabilia, such as Thomas Edison's laboratory, Ellis Island and Revolutionary War-era documents.

City Councilman Richard Alatorre, who pushed to help preserve the shul and the theater, remembers how during the 1950s his grandmother would take him to the Los Angeles Theater after she went to see her doctor.

"She would treat me to lunch at Clifton's," Alatorre said, "and to the movies at the theater."

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