Thursday, 25 February 2010

Chapel, synagogue, mosque: the varied life of a Georgian building

Georgian buildings are famously flexible, often accommodating a sequence of uses across the centuries. Mills and warehouses become apartments, houses become offices (and back again), churches become concert venues and so on. The building shown here, on the corner of Fournier Street and Brick Lane in East London, has demonstrated remarkable versatility with the added quirk of remaining in the same basic use, that of a place of worship. Built in 1743 as a French Protestant chapel, it later became a synagogue and is now a mosque, an impressive canter through the principal religions.

Designed by Thomas Stibbs in stock brick with stone dressings and a Welsh slate roof, the building initially served the Huguenot community then dominant in the Spitalfields silk-weaving industry. The later history reflects the shifting ethnic and religious character of this part of east London. In the early years of the nineteenth century, Jewish immigration to the area prompted the Society for Propagating Christianity among the Jews to lease the complex as its headquarters. In 1819 the chapel passed to the Wesleyan Methodists, but reverted to its earlier missionary use later in the century. In 1897 it was acquired by a Lithuanian Orthodox Jewish group known as the Mahzikei Hadas ('Strengtheners of the Faith'), who converted the chapel into the Spitalfields Great Synagogue. In the second half of the twentieth century, the Jewish population dispersed to the suburbs, making way for a wave of Muslim immigrants from eastern India and Bangladesh; the synagogue fell into disuse for a time before becoming a mosque, the London Jamme Masjid, in 1976.

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