In the heart of Virginia horse country, not far from where the Confederates surrendered at Appomattox, there is a graceful white house on an estate called Hyde Park.
Not to be confused with the London green or F.D.R.’s hometown in Dutchess County, N.Y., Burkeville, Va.’s Hyde Park is a national historic site for its role in absorbing Jewish refugees from Nazi Germany. Agriculturally skilled workers were resettled to the property in the 1930s and early 1940s, expanding the farm’s productivity and adding an Ashkenazic Jewish note to a landscape more commonly associated with Revolutionary and Civil War history.
Hyde Park is one of more than a dozen sites on the National Register of Historic Places, the arm of the National Park Service dedicated to preserving America’s social and architectural heritage. So as the NPS celebrates its 100th anniversary this year, it’s worth remembering that our American resources encompass more than wilderness; a fine centennial itinerary can be built around well-preserved landmarks of American-Jewish history as well.
Jewish historic sites are located in places as disparate as Oregon, Iowa and the Virgin Islands, though — like American-Jewish communities historically — they are more concentrated in the Eastern half of the Continental U.S. You don’t have to go far: the Jewish Center of Coney Island is on the list, having attained its status for significance in the development of South Brooklyn’s prewar Jewish neighborhoods. So is Manhattan’s Lower East Side Tenement Museum, designated as a NPS service unit.
Also close by: Mill House, a circa-1710 stone manse in Orange County, New York built by Luis Moses Gomez, the fur trader and son of Jewish immigrant merchants prominent in colonial New York. And across the river in Princeton, N.J., the Albert Einstein House is an NPS landmark designated for its significance to Jews, scientists and humanitarians, among others.
These are among the historic sites spotlighted during Jewish American Heritage Month in May — but at any time of year, they remind us of the tangible role Jewish people played in the story of our nation. Some, like the Jewish Center of Coney Island, allude to familiar chapters; others, like the New England Hebrew Farmers of the Emanuel Society Synagogue and Creamery Site in Chesterfield, Conn., are less obvious.
We expect to see dairy farms in rural New England, but a mikveh and synagogue structures amid the leafy environs of a barn and former creamery? Added to the historic register in 2012, these ritual structures — so apparently incongruous amid silos and dairy churns — offer clues to the myriad ways in which Jewish practice integrated into the routines of American life.
Caribbean cruisers might have visited the historic synagogue in Charlotte Amalie, the pretty pastel capital of St. Thomas in the Virgin Islands, where the circa-1833 Sephardic temple has long been a Jewish attraction. But you may not realize that the St. Thomas Synagogue — the second-oldest and longest in continuous among U.S. synagogues, and an NPS landmark of Spanish-Portuguese New World Jewry — owes its preservation in part to the August 1916 act of Congress that created the National Park Service.
To survey these places is also to appreciate the breadth of American-Jewish experience. What’s Jewish about Frank Lloyd Wright? Just outside Philadelphia, there’s a dramatic, glittering, pyramidal structure — the only synagogue ever designed by the country’s most iconic 20th-century architect. That distinction is what put the Conservative congregation Beth Sholom on the historic register.
Sometimes it’s not a building, but an entire neighborhood. Baltimore’s Park Circle Historic District, with its gracious streets of gabled, bay-window townhomes, is singled out for its role in the establishment of suburban Jewish community during the early 20th century.
In fact, the Baltimore NPS historic sites offer a Jewish microcosm of the classic American immigrant story. Like waves of newcomers from elsewhere, Eastern European Jews settled in inner-city Baltimore throughout the late 19th century; some of them spent time in the circa-1876 Hebrew Orphan Asylum, another Jewish national landmark. The succeeding generations integrated into Charm City society, putting down communal roots and settling into the tree-lined Park Circle neighborhood in the city’s northwest.
From those early communities and later immigration, great Jewish Americans rose to prominence in the 20th century — including several, such as Einstein, whose former homes constitute another category of national historic site.
Another is Louis Brandeis, the first Jew to serve on the U.S. Supreme Court. Born in Kentucky and worldly in outlook, Brandeis found refuge from weighty matters in the Cape Cod village of Chatham, where his weather-beaten, shingled beach house — a typical example of Massachusetts seashore architecture — is preserved by the National Park Service.
Brandeis was appointed to the Court by President Woodrow Wilson in 1916. Fittingly, it was the same year that Wilson’s Congress ordered the creation of our national park system, preserving the Brandeis home — and so many of the landmarks of American-Jewish heritage — for all of us to explore a century later.