(page 2 of 3)
The last two Jewish citizens in Donaldsonville died in 1994 and 2004, respectively. I hadn’t known either one.
I’ve been writing books and articles about the River Road Corridor, the area on the Mississippi between New Orleans and Baton Rouge, for 20 years, and was haunted by the story of Donaldsonville’s Jews. Though the history of the synagogue has been fairly well documented, the interior space of Bikur Cholim — where the Reform congregation had gathered to express its identity and celebrate Judaism — seemed lost. That is what I was seeking as I wandered the aisles of Ace Hardware. I even asked a clerk for permission to open the door beneath an exit sign. But I saw no remnant of the synagogue’s interior, only a small back foyer from which a pair of large double doors painted brick-red opened to the outside. A cluttered storeroom was to the right, a staircase on the left. As I departed, disappointed, the clerk smiled understandingly; I wasn’t the first person who’d come looking for traces of the old synagogue.
After my visit to Ace Hardware, I began to do research, searching for anyone with firsthand knowledge of the old synagogue, or at least a photograph of the synagogue’s interior, but it was a months-long, futile exercise. Only as I was about to end it did I find Mark Gautreau and Carolyn Masur.
Gautreau has owned the building since 1977, when he bought it from Western Auto and opened Ace Hardware. He is Catholic and had no relationship with Donaldsonville’s Jewish community, although he did know that his store building had been a synagogue. He is also a gifted avocational carpenter and woodworker with an excellent eye for wood and an uncanny ability to read construction clues. These served him well when, in 1985, he decided to finish out the cavernous attic above his store for his family’s living quarters. They served me well, too.
His renovation revealed the bones of a typical, late-19th-century, south Louisiana building: a frame structure raised on low piers. He admired its “fine craftsmanship… every finger joint precise and braced,” and denigrated Western Auto’s renovation. “They modified the building on the cheap,” he noted. But for me it proved serendipitous, because their inferior construction had left vital clues.
He pointed out the decorative detail on the original walls — wooden baseboard, ridged panels and the tall molding, which rose to a height of more than six feet.
From the look of them, Gautreau suggested, Western Auto had probably moved those large doors with iron hardware in the back foyer from the synagogue entrance under the double archway. And the back staircase had probably originally been near the entry, leading to the synagogue’s small balcony. When the store ceiling had been constructed, Western Auto had unceremoniously ripped off the stairs and moved them, to access the cavernous attic warehouse that was created. As we climbed the stairway, I could feel in its treads that slightly creaky tightness so common in 19th-century Louisiana wood.