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Gates of Heaven

Gates of Heaven Synagogue (7/17/71)

Wisconsin Historical Society Image ID: WHi-1821

Gates of Heaven Synagogue

Saving the Gates of Heaven From the Wrecking Ball

As people pass the little chapel in James Madison Park, few realize that the chapel was built in 1863. First located at 214 West Washington Avenue, it was designed and built by the first group of Jewish immigrants to arrive in Madison.

Originally known by its Hebrew name, Shaare Shomaim, it is now known as its English equivalent, the Gates of Heaven Synagogue. It now serves the general public as a place for weddings, musical events, meetings, lectures, receptions and other programs that elevate the community at large.

From 1863 to 1879, it served the small Jewish community as a house of worship. It then became the initial home of the Unitarian Society. Over the next 30 years, the building was occupied by the Unitarian Society, the Women's Christian Temperance Union (1890), the First Church of Christ Scientist (1898), and the English Lutheran Church (1908).

From 1916 to 1930, the building was owned by the Gill family and was used as a funeral home. Later, it became the Mission Inn, a tea room. During World War II, the U. S. government stored records and documents there. In 1944, it again became a house of worship, the Church of Christ, and later a dental office. Its last private use was as the headquarters of then-Congressman Robert Kastenmeier.

The Fiore Company was the property's last private owner and, in about 1970, they sold it for commercial development. With the Gates of Heaven threatened with demolition, Norton and Lois Stoler of Madison organized the Gates of Heaven Preservation Fund (1970). Its goal was to raise funds to move the 200-ton building to a public park and to restore the building to its 1863 appearance.

The project had the enthusiastic encouragement and support of Miles McMillan, then editor and publisher of the Capital Times, and of Frank Custer, then reporter and historian. Many letters to the editor, articles and editorials appeared in both Madison newspapers. With the efforts of the Wisconsin Historical Society of Wisconsin, the Gates of Heaven attained the status an official city landmark and then a national landmark.

Once the necessary funds were raised for moving the building, the project was turned over to the City of Madison and Sol Levin's Department of Housing. The Belding Moving Company of East Chicago, IL was the low (and only) bidder. Preparing for the move, 96 airplane wheels were placed under the structure and 2 tank retrievers from World War II lifted it from its original site. The move took place on July 17, 1971.

Saving the Gates of Heaven from demolition was Madison's first successful historic preservation effort. This success paved the way for the preservation of other 19th and 20th century buildings.

By Lois Stoler of Madison, WI