The synagogue was designed by an English architect, TB Cameron, and was consecrated in 1861. Documents from that consecration ceremony are held in the University of Sydney archives.
The Ballarat newspapers were delighted that such an elegant building had been completed. They felt it gave Ballarat, so recently a tatty mining town of tents and cheap pubs, the cachet of refinement and learning. The city’s main street, Sturt St, was planted with blue gums in the 1860s and gardens down the centre. The beautiful Ballarat Mechanics' Institute in Sturt St, was opened in 1860. Walter Craig bought the magnificent Craig’s Hotel in 1857. His guests included Prince Albert, the Duke of Edinburgh, the Duke of Clarence, the Duke and Duchess of York and Dame Nellie Melba. Opened as the Academy of Music in 1875, Her Majesty’s Theatre attracted the cream of the industry to Ballarat. Beautiful churches in bluestone attracted as much attention as the synagogue.
Reading desk and ark
Remodelling was undertaken in 1878, including the extension of the women's gallery along the sides of the hall (instead of just along the back wall), and the addition of a second staircase to the gallery and ante-rooms towards the front of the building. Externally the latter are in a style consistent with that of the building. The Synagogue was originally constructed in face brickwork, with contrast provided by rendered pilasters and columns. Since then, the entire building has since been rendered.
The interior of the synagogue is largely intact with its original furniture and fittings, including a cedar bimah-reading table and cedar-fronted ark. The cast iron balustrading on the women’s gallery comes as something of a surprise. The building was designed to accommodate 350.
The Paul Simon Hall behind the synagogue was the original Jewish school house for Ballarat; and noone seems to have any information about this small building.
This regional city has one of the few surviving C19th synagogues in Victoria, so the building was quickly put on the Victorian Heritage Register of significant sites. Today it is only used for services on holy days, weddings and when Jewish tour groups arrive from Melbourne and Sydney.
The Ballarat Synagogue is not hemmed by tall buildings, nonetheless it is not as light and airy as it might have been. Examine the Congregation of Jacob Synagogue /Kehillas Ya'akov, in the East End of London, which was founded in 1903. Totally hemmed in between the adjacent buildings, the Congregation of Jacob's glass roof allows natural light to flood into the nave.