The shifting sands on the floor inside the Western Hemisphere’s oldest continuously operating synagogue Mikvé Israel-Emanuel in Willemstad, Curaçao posed some unique challenges to students and researchers.
Covering the floors of the sanctuary and the mezzanine, the sand parted with every footfall, making it harder for eight University of Miami School of Architecture students to document every cornice and crevice of the synagogue, built nearly 300 years ago by Dutch Jews whose descendants fled the Spanish Inquisition.
“Sometimes it’s a bit overwhelming,” said Olivia Kramer, a fifth-year student (on the left, below) from Minnesota who sketched much of the floor plan of the triple-vaulted building that opened its mahogany doors in 1732. “We’re on hands and knees measuring every inch. We’re double-checking every dimension. I don’t think I’ve ever been so dirty. We leave the synagogue soaked in sweat and with sand in our shoes.’’
Yet Kramer and the other architecture students (L-R Olivia, Joshua Kleinberg, Amanda Arrizabalaga, Xiangyu “Jack” Shao, Daniella Huen, and Hector Valdivia Arrieta)—who spent the first week of the fall semester on this Dutch Caribbean island just north of Venezuela—had no complaints. They may not have known exactly what they were getting into when they signed up for Professor Jorge L. Hernández’s elective design studio in historic preservation, but the arduous process of creating the most comprehensive and accurate architectural drawings of the oldest surviving synagogue in the Americas was an exhilarating learning experience with innumerable rewards.
Among them was laying the foundation for their school’s proposed collaboration with UM’s Institute for Advanced Study of the Americas, Miller Center for Contemporary Judaic Studies, Center for Computational Science, and College of Arts and Sciences, to create an architectural and historical record of all the Caribbean’s Jewish synagogues and temples. [Making the trip from CCS was Software Engineering Director Chris Mader (at right) and Associate Scientist Amin Sarafraz (at left) who drone mapped the interior and exterior of the Synagogue.]
“We want to document [the synagogues] one by one, and this is a perfect pilot project and a perfect place to start,” said Haim Shaked, director of the Miller Center. “It is a unique building with a unique history. It was modeled after the main synagogue in Amsterdam, which welcomed Jews expelled from Spain and Portugal, and you feel the history when you walk in.”
Added UM’s first lady, Felicia Marie Knaul (whose idea it was for UM to survey the Caribbean’s synagogues): “The Nazis destroyed many of the synagogues in Europe, and we don’t want time or neglect to destroy the places in our hemisphere where Jews found refuge and prospered for centuries.”
Divided into a floor plan team and a longitudinal sections team, the students spent six long, hot days measuring and sketching the un-airconditioned space imbued with serenity and history and bathed in cobalt light. The color filtered through dozens of blue stained-glass windows that, depending on the time of day, splashed the sills, the white walls, the mahogany benches, and the mysterious, ubiquitous sand with its heavenly blue hue.
“The simplicity is luminous,” said fourth-year student Hector Valdivia Arrieta, a recent transfer from Peru who would leave Curaçao enamored with his first taste of preservation work. “When the work is tedious you can rest your mind in a place filled with inspiration. Just lie down on the sand floor and look up.”
A symbol of Jewish resilience in the face of relentless persecution, the sand is said to be a reminder of Spanish Jews who muffled the sound of their footsteps when praying in secret during the Inquisition, or of Moses wandering in the desert after leading his people out of slavery in Egypt. But aside from its tranquil, sound-absorbing presence, the uneven sand was a burden for the students responsible for establishing a datum line, the vertical reference point from which all measurements start, and on which all architectural drawings depend.
“Nothing physical is perfect and, with time, buildings settle, so that line is a place from which to measure up and down,” Hernández explained on an early Monday morning as the steady buzz of the mapping drone flying outside filtered through the louvered windows. “In a place where the floor is sand, the datum line is ever more important because the floor is ever-more imperfect.”
Guided by Ricardo Lopez (pictured below), assistant director of the School of Architecture’s Center for Urban and Community Design, who teaches a class on the standards for surveying historic American buildings, the students used lasers, levels, plumb lines, tape measures, string, and even a translucent, flexible tube filled with water to set the perfect line.
Lopez borrowed the simple tool from Santiago, Cuba, where he, Hernández and Associate Professor Carie Penabad led another studio class that documented Santiago’s Church of Santa Lucia. Karen Mathews, Assistant Professor of Art and Art History, who researched the synagogue in Curaçao’s archives, also participated in the documentation of the 1701 Catholic church, which is among a dozen that, with the Cuban-born Hernández’s help, were listed as cultural heritage sites by the World Monuments Fund.
“The Cuban water hose is useful for establishing a datum incrementally and allowing us to extend it from the interior to the exterior of the subject building,” Lopez said as he helped students measure the spaces between dozens of windows. “In ancient times they probably used a piece of an animal intestine to do the same thing.”
By late afternoon, a triumphant yell could be heard from the mezzanine, where women congregants were once segregated from the men who sat below on the first level. “Finito!” exulted Daniella Huen, when she and fellow fifth-year student Jack Shao and fourth-year Julia Murdoch finally finished establishing the datum line, painstakingly marked with dots on masking tape about five feet above the shifting sands on both floors.
Hidden far above them, up a ladder and through a trap door, Valdivia-Arrieta was exploring the triangles of timbers in the trio of attics after he and Hannan Vilchis-Zubizarreta, also a fourth-year student, finished measuring the first of the three haunting spaces where few other people have tread over the centuries. “The professor told me we’re done but I could stay a while longer,” Valdivia-Arrieta said. “That meant I had the space to myself. I went into every attic. I opened all the windows and took pictures. I even sent a video to my mom and said, ‘You’ll never guess where I am standing . . .’ ”
SOURCE “Viewing History from the Inside Out” UM News Special Feature (09/13/2018) by Maya Bell