Community mourns after fire damages historic Kentucky church

Updated: Mar. 15, 2021 at 2:02 AM EDT
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A fire ripped through Kentucky's first synagogue Saturday, causing the roof to partially...
A fire ripped through Kentucky's first synagogue Saturday, causing the roof to partially collapse.(WAVE 3 News)

LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WAVE) - As the sun rose Sunday morning, hours after a fire ripped through a historic church building in Old Louisville, the extent of the damage started to become clear.

The roof partially collapsed, Louisville Fire officials said.

The building’s previous broker, Gant Hill, told WAVE 3 News the church was the first synagogue in the state of Kentucky.

In 1928, members of the congregation had the synagogue constructed. It was called the Keneseth Israel Synagogue, designed by Joseph & Joseph. It was also later put on the National Register of Historica Places.

“It’s a holy place, a holy place,” Cantor Sharon Hordes with the Keneseth Israel Synagogue on Taylorsville Road, said. “So many generations who have worshipped in that building.”

In the late 1960s or early 1970s, the Jewish congregation who worshiped there moved the synagogue to a new location on Taylorsville Road. The building was then sold and over the last five decades, a number of different churches have used the building as their place of worship.

The building has sat vacant for at least two years now. On Saturday night around 8:30 p.m., firefighters were called to the building in the 200 block of Jacob Street for heavy smoke and a fire. When they arrived, they found heavy fire and smoke coming from the three-story church. Louisville Fire Spokesman Bobby Cooper said firefighters started to search the building to check for people, but had to quickly evacuate due to the structural integrity of the building. Investigators do not believe anyone was inside the church.

The Louisville Fire Department spent Saturday night working a fire at a vacant church in...
The Louisville Fire Department spent Saturday night working a fire at a vacant church in downtown Louisville, just across the street from WAVE 3 News.(WAVE 3 News)

Images of the synagogue on fire started to spread throughout the community.

“All of the people I’ve talked to today are just they’re really sad. They’re really sad to watch this image of flames come up from out of their building,” Hordes said.

The Jewish community has not gathered in that building for 50 years, but Hordes said there’s something about it that has stuck with people in her congregation.

“I was just speaking to someone in my congregation who grew up there. He’s, I believe in his 80s,” Hordes said. “And he said you have to remember that this building was built by immigrants, who were trying to create or recreate something familiar from the old country and they were so proud of themselves.”

For many in the Jewish community and beyond, the damage is hard to believe.

“It was a punch to the gut to see that happening. Just to see the destruction of such a beloved place,” Hordes said.

Hordes said she did not visit the building while the Jewish community owned it, but she remembers visiting it a few year ago for the first time when it was for sale.

“You could see the plaster was crumbling and it was really musty but you could tell what a beautiful building it must have been at that time,” she said.

WAVE 3 News learned the building was set to be auctioned off on Thursday, March 18, 2021.

The auctioneer of the building Julie Bex confirmed to WAVE 3 News the building does not have any electricity right now and said it’s been vacant for at least two years.

Bex said over the past few weeks, the owners and current broker have had numerous showings because the building was set to go up for auction on Thursday.

The building’s former broker Gant Hill said he had the building for sale for two years.

“It’s such an important building and it’s so sad that it’s had this fate. The stained glass was outstanding in the building,” he said. “It’s extremely beautiful and it’s part of the neighborhood. It’s part of the area, so it’s like losing a member of the family for some.”

Louisville Fire said the cause of the fire is under investigation. Because of the limited access to where the fire appears to have started, it will likely be a lengthy investigation.

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