First Narayever Synagogue

Annex, Toronto

A decision to improve accessibility prompted alterations that not only enhanced the heritage synagogue’s overall functionality and sustainability, but also reinforced the congregation’s values and aspirations.

First Narayever Synagogue, modestly constructed as a Mennonite church in the 1890s, rests midway down a residential block in the heart of Toronto’s Annex neighbourhood. Historic analysis revealed that its heritage value was more connected to the congregation itself, rather than its architecture. At the same time, it was clear that the congregants were emotionally attached to both their location and their sanctuary, and wanted to keep its identity intact. Consequently, we set out to maintain the building’s contextual scale and presence, but we were free to alter its formal appearance, drawing on the Narayever custom of blending traditional and egalitarian values to reinforce this ethos in the design itself.

One of the original building’s distinctive characteristics was its sharp roofline. A new “folded back” roofline over the stair vestibule pays tribute to that feature, and establishes a modest and familiar relationship to the neighbouring buildings. We also clad the new façade with an elongated clay tile that nods to the surrounding brick houses, rather than attempting to match their materiality identically.

A new front entrance vestibule houses an elevator and a stair, setting the tone by welcoming everyone, regardless of their mobility, to enter and exit the building together through one door. The lobby, and its extended outdoor court, act as an informal meeting place. This theme of arrival and gathering is duplicated on each level with sizeable landings. To accommodate these new elements while maintaining the building’s setback, we moved the entire sanctuary eastwards within the building’s existing footprint. Any interior elements that could not be salvaged were replicated with digital modeling so that the space appears unchanged, with the same size, form, proportions, and materials, within its new contemporary wrapper. Blue, the colour of its former façade, became a thematic colour in the new interior.

To increase the overall square footage, we looked for unused and discrete opportunities to create new program spaces. An underpinned lower level now offers expanded educational and event spaces, storage, and washroom and facilities. On a new second level, we added administrative offices, a meeting space, and for the first time, a rabbi’s study — all nestled within mature treetops. Our design also incorporated system upgrades including new “shabbat sensitive” audio/visual and security technologies, as well as solar panels and green roofs to adhere to traditional Jewish values about caring for the planet.