Shool Pool

The former synagogue at England's only Jewish public school, Carmel College in Berkshire, may become a swimming pool, Jacuzzi and cafe, according to plans submitted to South Oxfordshire District Council.

The former synagogue and amphitheatre at Carmel College (Photo: English Heritage)

The former synagogue and amphitheatre at Carmel College (Photo: English Heritage)

August 2012

Carmel College was the only Jewish public school ever established in Britain but closed down during the 1990s. The extensive rural campus, through which the River Thames flows, was then acquired by the Exilarch Foundation, set up by the Dangoor family who tried but failed to revive it as a conference facility for the Jewish community. In 2006 the former school was sold for over £10 million to Comer Homes who specialise in high-end residential development around historic buildings.   The synagogue at Carmel was the first - and remains the only - Listed (Grade II) synagogue in the country that dates from after the Second World War (Thomas Hancock 1963). It contains extensive stained glass by internationally known Israeli designer Nehemiah Azaz executed in contrasting styles. The floor to ceiling 'Creation' cycle on the East wall behind the Ark is made of glass set directly into concrete. In the final panel (reading in Hebrew from right to left) are abstract human figures of Adam and Eve in red. Figurative art is very rare in a Jewish religious context. The dalle de verre stained glass in the West (entrance) wall of the synagogue, depicting Jewish festivals, is more typical of Azaz's style, featuring bold colours and his trademark jagged Hebrew lettering.

Religious scruples aside, the  generic character of much postwar and contemporary synagogue architecture lends itself to successful adaptation to a variety of uses. The swimming pool/jacuzzi cum cafe solution proposed in the case of Carmel could work quite well architecturally given the large amount of clear glazing in the building. We welcome the fact that the stained glass will be on public view and in no way obscured. We know of no precedents in Britain for converting synagogues into swimming pools, but the scheme by Peter Scott is an imaginative one which includes a coherent master plan and repairs to other Listed structures on the site including the Grade II* pyramid shaped Gottlieb Gallery and Boathouse by Sir Basil Spence.

Jewish Heritage has responded positively to the public consultation. We have requested that a heritage plaque be prominently placed inside the synagogue building, identifying its former use and the names of the architect and glassmaker.