Washington, D.C. - It is a small museum. In fact, it is the Small Museum. More specifically, it is the Lillian & Albert Small Jewish Museum.

Even more precisely, it is the Adas Israel synagogue in Washington, D.C.

Described as a brick structure of "stripped-down Romanesque Revival," the small (60 by 25 feet) building looms large in the growth of the capital's Jewish community.

The first Jewish congregation there met in 1852. That Washington Hebrew Congregation eschewed many orthodox rituals and, in 1869, 17 members broke away to form their own congregation that would maintain a stricter adherence to Jewish traditions. They chose the name "Adas Israel" and eventually built their own house of worship that was dedicated on June 9, 1876. Among those in attendance was President Ulysses S. Grant.

It is said that the second-floor sanctuary could hold 350 people, while the first floor contained a meeting room, classroom and the caretaker's apartment.

As the congregation outgrew the building, it found a more spacious sanctuary a couple of blocks away. In 1951, the congregation occupied its present synagogue at 2850 Quebec St., NW.

The original building spent the first half of the 20th century as a Christian church, a barbershop, bike shop, grocery and deli, and a dentist's office.

In 1966, the story of that first Adas Israel synagogue took an amazing turn, literally and figuratively.

The building was in sad shape and the city ordered it to be demolished. The Jewish Historical Society, the city and the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development came to terms and it was determined that the structure could be saved if it was moved.

In December 1969, the second floor sanctuary and third floor balcony were detached from an unfit-for-travel first level, loaded onto a flatbed truck and transported to its present site.

Those upper stories were placed upon a first level that was re-created from bricks salvaged from the 1876 structure.

As much of the expense was borne by an endowment from the Small family, the resulting museum was named in their honor.

The museum was administered by the Jewish Historical Society of Greater Washington, which also maintained its offices in the former synagogue. In May 2008, those offices and archives were moved into larger quarters a block away.

The society has put together an exhibition that contributes to the nationwide observance of the 250th anniversary of Abraham Lincoln's birth, "Jewish Life in Mr. Lincoln's City."

The exhibit includes items from the Jewish Historical Society's collections and images from the Library of Congress and other collections. It opens at the Washington Hebrew Congregation, 3935 Macomb St., NW, on Feb. 13 and will move to the Small Jewish Museum where it will be on view from June 9 through September.

•E-mail correspondent Charles J. Adams III at weekend@readingeagle.com.