Historic Chicago Synagogue Architecture at KAM Isaiah Israel

KAM Isaiah Israel is the oldest Jewish congregation in Chicago. Some may know it for as the building with the striking octagonal architecture and dome, located next door to Obama’s house in the Kenwood-Hyde Park neighborhood. The synagogue traces its roots back to the 1841 arrival of the first Jewish settlers in Chicago.

My wife works at KAM Isaiah Israel, so with my many visits there I have been curious about the community’s history and the synagogue architecture. With the Jewish holiday of Purim this week, I decided to accept an invitation from my wife to dive into the history and architecture that make KAM Isaiah Israel so unique.

We research stories from Chicago history, architecture and culture like this while developing our live virtual tours, in-person private tours, and custom content for corporate events. You can join us to experience Chicago’s stories in-person or online. We can also create custom tours and original content about this Chicago topic and countless others.

Todros Geller From Land to Land Maxwell Street Chicago Jewish
A print of the Maxwell Street slum, which was mainly Jewish, by famed Jewish Chicago artist Todros Geller. Image credit: Wikipedia

Jewish Emigration to Chicago

To grasp the roots of KAM Isaiah Israel, I had to dive into the history of Judaism in Chicago. The initial Jewish residents of Chicago emigrated from Germany and were relatively prosperous and educated. Like other upwardly mobile groups, they soon left behind the crowded and dirty streets of downtown. The Jewish community slowly moved south and east towards the lakefront communities on the South Side. That’s where the Jewish community in Hyde Park and Kenwood springs from.

According to Jewish historian Irving Cutler, the Chicago area had the world’s third-largest Jewish population by 1930. Only New York City and Warsaw had more Jewish residents at that time. After that, a mix of economic upward mobility and White Flight helped depopulate the old Jewish neighborhoods. Today, the Jewish community in Hyde Park and Kenwood is much smaller than its early 20th-century heyday. The University of Chicago and the congregation’s unique commitment to social justice helped retain some of the neighborhood’s Jewish population.

Former Homes of KAM Isaiah Israel

KAM (Kehilath Anshe Mayriv) and Temple Isaiah Israel were separate congregations until the 1970’s and both changed locations several times. The congregation’s first services were held above a dry-goods store on Lake Street in 1847. By 1851, the congregation had grown enough to need its own building. The site of their first structure, near the southern end of the Loop, is now occupied by the Federal Center. The Great Chicago Fire of 1871 and another in 1874 forced KAM to move south. Around the same time, B’nai Sholom Temple Israel and Isaiah Temple (which merged to form Temple Isaiah Israel in 1924) also moved south.

kam adler sullivan pilgrim baptist church
The synagogue built for KAM by Adler and Sullivan. It later became Pilgrim Baptist Church.

KAM had two architecturally significant homes after moving south. The first, in the Bronzeville neighborhood, was designed by famous architects Louis Sullivan and Dankmar Adler and opened in 1891. It’s a beautiful showpiece for the strong geometric architecture and signature decoration that made Ader & Sullivan so famous. The interior reminds me of Adler and Sullivan’s glorious Auditorium Theater in downtown. KAM moved south to Kenwood-Hyde Park in 1924. Later, the Bronzeville synagogue became Pilgrim Baptist Church, famous for gospel music. The shell of the building remains today on S. Indiana, just south of 33rd St.

KAM’s new home at 50th and Drexel was built in a Neo-Classical Greek style. It is now the headquarters of the Rainbow/PUSH Coalition that Jesse Jackson founded.

Current KAM Isaiah Israel Synagogue in Kenwood

KAM Isaiah Israel exterior kenwood hyde park
The exterior of KAM Isaiah Israel’s current building in Kenwood. Photo Credit: Gretchen Brown

The current home of KAM Isaiah Israel, and the only one I’ve thoroughly gotten to know, dates to 1923. It was built when the merger of B’nai Sholom Temple Israel and Isaiah Temple prompted a new structure. Its architecture recalls that of ancient Byzantine churches that dot the Mediterranean. Our University of Chicago Campus and Neighborhood Tour can show you more of the area.

I’ve visited KAM Isaiah Israel several times and always find myself caught up in its iconoclastic architecture. For researching this blog post, I visited the synagogue with a tour guide. The chimney is my favorite element of the building’s exterior. Because it would have ruined the Byzantine aesthetic, the architects designed it to resemble a Turkish minaret. They mimic the minarets of the Hagia Sophia in Istanbul. I love the ingenuity of integrating this potentially ugly addition into the existing (and sublime) architecture. The overall effect makes the synagogue look utterly unlike the familiar architecture of American houses of worship.

Interior Architecture of KAM Isaiah Israel

KAM Isaiah Israel interior bima
The architecture of KAM Isaiah Israel’s interior recalls Byzantine churches. Photo Credit: KAM Isaiah Israel

The inside of KAM Isaiah Israel’s main sanctuary continues the idiosyncratic Byzantine architectural style. Two architectural elements dominate your attention upon entry. First is the soaring domed ceiling. Standing in that space, I find it hard not to stare upwards and lose my orientation while gawking at it. Eight giant columns hold up the roof, which give the sanctuary its unusual octagonal shape.

My tour guide, a congregant named Grace, told me the architectural shape was modeled after the Basilica of San Vitale in Ravenna, Italy. The ceiling and walls have a structural and stylistic unity, which only adds to the dazzling visual effects of the synagogue’s architecture. Consequent’s very easy to stand in the aisle and lose yourself in the herringbone tiles and Jewish symbols on every surface.

The ancient feel of the Byzantine-revival architecture helps underline both the ancient roots of the Jewish people and their long history in Chicago. If you want to visit, tours can be arranged by appointment.

-Alex Bean, Office Manager and Tour Guide


Chicago Detours is a boutique tour company passionate about connecting people to places and each other through the power of storytelling. We bring curious people to explore, learn and interact with Chicago’s history, architecture and culture through in-person private group tourscontent production, and virtual tours.


Share on facebook
Share on twitter
Share on pinterest
Share on linkedin

be a



Private Tour Coordinator and Tour Guide

There is no shortage of things to discover in Chicago—I love being an urban explorer and uncovering its hidden places. I have an MA in Public History from Loyola University Chicago, and I have worked as a museum educator and kindergarten teacher. My desire to learn new things fuels my passion for educating others, which I get to experience every day as a Chicago tour guide. I live in the northern neighborhood of Rogers Park.

“Our guide Ellen was exceptional and gifted with a great personal touch.”


Tour Guide

Whether you are a first-time visitor or a lifelong resident, the vibrant history and modern majesty of Chicago never ceases to amaze. I’m a graduate of Columbia College with an M.A. in Interdisciplinary Art. I’ve worked for many years as an educator at City Colleges of Chicago. As tour guide at Chicago Detours, I integrate my enthusiasm for culture and architecture with my passion as an educator. West Town/Noble Square area is home for me.

“Jen was a perfect storyteller and kept us spellbound for hours.”


Tour Guide

With our Chicago neighborhoods, vibrant cultural institutions and nearly two centuries of larger-than-life stories, there’s never a dull moment here! I’m a fifth generation Chicagoan and a graduate of Washington University in St. Louis. In addition to guiding tours, I’m a creative writer and amateur genealogist. I also enjoy the city’s dynamic theater scene. You can also read overlooked stories from 19th-century newspapers on my “Second Glance History” blog. I live in River North.


Tour Guide

Chicago is unique as it always evolves into the future while holding on to the past. I’m fascinated by how people latch on to old architecture but happily pave over others. My background is in theater and performance and I’ve been a tour guide here for more than 10 years. Currently I’m finishing my Master’s in Public History at Loyola University because I love to teach the history of this scrappy city. I’m in the Edgewater neighborhood.


Operations Coordinator and Tour Guide

Chicago’s history is so fascinating, you could spend a lifetime uncovering its secrets…I’m willing to give it a try! I have an M.A. in US History from the University of Nevada-Las Vegas and then pursued doctoral studies in Urban History at the University of Illinois at Chicago. I love to learn new aspects of Chicago’s rich history and then share my knowledge as a tour guide with Chicago Detours. I live in Ravenswood.

“Marie was a bubbling fountain of information and contagious enthusiasm.”


Operations Coordinator and Tour Guide

As a fourth generation Chicagoan, I have been living and loving Chicago by bike, on foot, public transit or automobile. I am a graduate of UIC where through the College of Urban Planning and Public Affairs, began my eagerness to understand the nature, history and impacts of urban planning and development. It is incredibly rewarding to give back to this wonderful city by helping out in the office of Chicago Detours. I live in the incredibly diverse neighborhood of Albany Park.
“Sonny was extremely knowledgeable about all things Chi-town.”
Wade K


Content Manager and Tour Guide

Chicago has so many neighborhoods, buildings, and by-ways that it’s hard to go long without seeing something new, or something familiar from a new angle. I studied Cinema History for my M.A. from the University of Chicago. I’ve worked as a culture writer for various publications and as an educator of the humanities at the City Colleges of Chicago. I’m thrilled to share my love of this city’s busy past and unique architectural spaces with Chicago Detours. I live in the Chicago neighborhood of Lincoln Park.

“Alex was fascinating to listen to. He clearly knows his history and it shows.”
Katie K

Amanda Scotese

Executive Director and Tour Guide

I’m an interpreter of personal stories from the past and the city’s landscape. I love to imagine what originally happened inside old unmarked buildings, and what forces have shaped their design. I studied Chicago history, architectural history, and anything Chicago-related through my M.A. in the Humanities at the University of Chicago. My love for stories was enriched by my B.A. in Literature from the University of Michigan. I’ve written travel articles for publications like Rick Steves’ Italy best-selling travel guides, the San Francisco Bay Guardian, and The Chicago Food Encyclopedia. I live in the Chicago neighborhood of West Avondale.
“You can TELL Amanda is hyper-passionate about doing the research and getting the story that nobody’s heard before.”
Shelby F

Book a chicago event

Let’s Connect!