The minutes of Beth Elohim for the 1840s reveal that the leadership agonized over many details of the building. They often called congregational meetings to arrive at final decisions. Matters of the greatest concern were the size of the new structure, the location of the entrance door (some wanted to place it facing the street), the location of certain tablets and their inscriptions. The most divisive issue arouse from a request from reform-minded members to install an organ in the new building, which was approved after much debate by a very narrow margin.
The building was constructed by member David Lopez from designs by the architect C.L. Warner. The temple grounds are fronted by a graceful iron fence dating from the 1794 synagogue. The large marble tablet above the huge entrance doors proclaims the Sh'ma (Deut. 6:4): "Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God is the Sole Eternal Being." In the foyer in similar position is the original foundation stone of the earlier synagogue. The massive ark, which by local tradition is kept open throughout worship services, is made of Santo Domingo mahogany. Stained glass windows, which show Jewish religious symbols, date from after 1886 and are replacements of windows destroyed in the earthquake of that year.
The new organ, encased in "splendid mahogany to correspond with the interior of the building," was said to have about 700 pipes and to have cost $2500. A quotation, "Praise Him with stringed instruments and organ," in Hebrew and English, was placed over the organ.
The introduction of the organ for use with regular services, a first in American Jewish history, and other reforms in the hitherto orthodox services caused the traditionalists to secede and form a new congregation, Shearit Israel. They built a synagogue--a "neat edifice capable of holding 400 persons"-- on the north side of Wentworth Street between Meeting and Anson Streets and grew in strength until the Civil War.
Both congregations suffered considerable property damages during the Civil War. Reverend Isaac Leeser, editor of The Occident , visited Charleston in June 1866 and wrote:
...The Wentworth Street Synagogue was so greatly injured as...almost to render it useless as a place of worship. The Hasell Street one was also much disfigured...When we entered it on Sabbath morning, it "presented such a sad appearance...Now the unwashed floor, the dust resting on the benches and furniture, many panes of glass broken, the ceiling crushed in many places by the explosion of shells that penetrated the roof - oh! it was mournful to make the comparison (with its pre-war condition).
Beth Elohim's scrolls of the law, the organ, the chandelier, and the gold and silver ornaments for the scrolls were lost in Columbia, S.C., where they had been sent for safekeeping during the war.
In 1866 the two congregations agreed to amalgamate, and the Wentworth Street synagogue was sold to the Catholic Diocese of Charleston for $5000. A committee (headed by David Levy) appointed to examine the damages to the Hasell Street synagogue recommended that the building be moved to a new site, for Hasell Street had become a noisy and busy commercial thoroughfare. The membership rejected this and decided to repair the building for continued worship. No changes were ordered; the old interior arrangement was preserved.
Not until 1879 was the interior of the synagogue rearranged to the present seating pattern to allow for family pews on the main floor. The altar and reading platform were removed from the center of the synagogue and located before the ark. The body of the synagogue was then divided into a double row of seats in the center and two on the side aisles. The galleries remained as they were. The balustrade which had surrounded the reading platform was then placed at the lower level of what is now the pulpit area. It is now under a handsome reading table, a comparatively recent addition.
In August 1886, Beth Elohim's synagogue was badly damaged (mostly the interior) by the earthquake which struck Charleston. With funds gathered from members, and from congregations, businesses, and communities around the country (about $10,000), the congregation was able "to not only repair the damages but also to beautify and improve the building."
Parallel to the length of the temple stands the building formerly called the Bicentennial Tabernacle erected in 1950 during the 200th anniversary celebration of the congregation. It houses the religious school as well as the spacious social hall and the Mildred Bernstein kitchen. This auxillary building replaced the temporary structure hurriedly built after the 1838 fire, but which remained in use for 111years! In the social hall two large murials painted by Charleston artist William Halsey portray founders and patriots of the congregation, and a pair of wrought iron sculptures of Biblical prophets are by the late Willard Hirsch. The building is named for Milton Pearlstine and Edwin Pearlstine, Jr.