Historians will tell you that meaningful documents are too often discarded. But once in awhile, treasures are discovered where they are least expected.
Such was the case last year, when artwork created in the 1970s to honor the history of Congregation Beth Shalom was discovered among blueprints used to build its former synagogue at 95th Street and Wornall Road in Kansas City.
The synagogue there has been torn down to make way for an expansion of the engineering, architecture and construction firm Burns & McDonnell, while the congregation has occupied a building at 14200 Lamar Ave. in Overland Park for the last nine years.
And now, thanks to a fortuitous discovery, four paintings that were used to create stained-glass windows for the Wornall synagogue are now hanging in the foyer of the synagogue in Overland Park.
Three of the paintings depict the buildings occupied during the 20th century by Beth Shalom and its predecessor congregation, while a fourth depicts the Western Wall in Jerusalem, Judaism’s holiest site.
Beth Shalom traces its history back to some of Kansas City’s earliest Jewish settlers, who formed the Orthodox congregation Keneseth Israel in the late 1800s. Keneseth Israel built its first synagogue building in 1902 at 1425 Locust St.
Beth Shalom was formed in 1915, following the then-new movement known as Conservative Judaism, a slightly less rigorous expression of the ancient Hebrew faith.
Beth Shalom and Keneseth Israel merged in 1924, and in 1927 the congregation moved to a new synagogue building at 3400 the Paseo. It remained there until the early 1960s, when a religious school building was built at 95th and Wornall, followed by a modernistic, peaked sanctuary in 1971.
It was at that point that the congregation engaged Israeli artist Nahum Arbel to create stained-glass windows depicting its former homes on Locust and the Paseo, as well as its then-new building on Wornall.
Arbel created the four paintings, which were then used as guides to create the windows. The windows hung in a passageway at the Wornall campus until it closed in 2011.
The synagogue building was sold in 2013 to VanTrust Real Estate, which, in turn, sold it to Burns & McDonnell for its expansion.
Jeffrey Turk, senior director of development services for VanTrust, explained that he was somewhat surprised to find a plastic container full of blueprints for the Wornall building when he took charge of it.
“We get properties built in the 1970s or ’80s that we can’t find all the drawings for, so it’s a credit to the administrators or the facilities folks at the congregation to have kept track of those documents,” Turk said.
Turk explained that blueprints help when demolishing a building.
“The most important thing is for us to be able to locate utility lines that are underground or inside walls or ceilings,” he said. “You also need structural plans. Building are designed to stand up, not to be taken down, and it isn’t the reverse of constructing them.”
The plans resided in Turk’s office for a year before he found the artwork among them. Turk had pledged to give the blueprints to the Historic Kansas City Foundation, and he was going over them when he found what he later learned were Arbel’s paintings.
It’s still a mystery as to how and why they ended up there.
“I unrolled one roll, and it was unlike any other by a large margin,” Turk said. “I called in a colleague and said ‘Take a look at this. What do you think this is?’ ”
Eventually, they realized what they had and contacted Beth Shalom officials and arranged to return the art to the congregation.
Leslie Mark, a member of the congregation ith an arts background, consulted with VanTrust and helped make arrangements to have the paintings framed.
The paintings were turned over to the congregation in a ceremony in November.
“Beth Shalom was a special neighbor to Burns & McDonnell for years, and their leaders continue to be valued friends and partners with us in the community,” said Burns & McDonnell Chairman and CEO Greg Graves. “During our expansion project, it has been critically important to us to preserve and protect items that have been sacred to Beth Shalom for generations, such as these beautiful paintings and the synagogue’s original cornerstone. We also preserved some of the original materials from the synagogue, including much of the stone and marble. We’re honored it can now be part of Burns & McDonnell’s world headquarters.”
Rabbi David Glickman of Beth Shalom called the discovery and return of the artwork “an act of grace and generosity.”
The windows created from the paintings are currently in storage, Glickman said, because the current synagogue building could not accommodate all the artworks from the Wornall Road synagogue. But he said they, too, might once again see the light of day.
“At some point, we’ll need to build a sanctuary, and we may use the stained glass then,” he said.
Mark said that for now, the paintings “certainly brighten up the foyer.”