Boston’s oldest immigrant-built synagogue, the Vilna Shul, is 100 years old this year — and it’s undergoing a massive restoration that opens a window into not just the lives of the Lithuanian Jews who built it, but into the Boston immigrant experience and the city's civil rights history.

Taking its name from the old name for Vilnius, the Vilna Shul was designed by Max Kalman, the only Jewish architect in Boston at the time. It was built by and for Lithuanian Jews, who came to Boston in large numbers in the late 19th century.

While Jews in Lithuania had already suffered hundreds of years of persecution, Vilnius was considered an important center of Jewish learning. To preserve their community and culture, in 1893 the Lithuanian immigrants in Boston formed a landsmannschaft— a kind of social service network that provided help to everyone in the community and served as a basis for the congregation that would found the Vilna Shul.

“They all lived in this densely populated, historic West End neighborhood of Boston that was filled with new Eastern European Jewish immigrants, existing African-American Bostonians as well as new Irish immigrants, Italian immigrants,” according to Barnet Kessel, the executive director of the Vilna Shul.

“In 1906, they buy a recently vacated church, the famous Twelfth Baptist Church,” Kessel says, referring to the church where the soldiers of the 54th Massachusetts, the first all-black regiment to fight in the Civil War, prayed. In 1919, the immigrants began building the Vilna Shul just a block away.

“So this building has a lot to say about the Jewish Eastern-European immigrant experience in Boston and the new America. But also, the relationship with all different cultures here on the north slope of Beacon Hill and the old west end,” Kessel said.

That diverse, immigrant-defined community in the West End is no more. By the mid-1980s, all of the congregation of the Vilna Shul had moved away. The Vilna Center for Jewish Heritage (now the modern Vilna Shul organization) saved the site in 1994, and made it habitable. They didn’t realize the synagogue held hidden treasures, but they only had to scratch the surface — literally.

Kessel says they hired a historical expert, who cut a small hole in a back wall, “and [saw] a kaleidoscope of colors.” They discovered the original walls were covered with all kinds of paintings, hidden under several layers of solid paint.

“That leads [to] a chain reaction of expert research to see what's going on under the beige paint, and what they have found are three distinct layers of hand-painted folk art murals. We believe this is the only example of that kind of multilayered paint in a Jewish space in the United States,” Kessel said.

The Shul closed last year for a massive restoration that is also uncovering the rest of the art. The restored patches on the walls and ceilings open up like windows into the past, revealing painted columns and plants and landscapes brighter and fresher than the beige paint hiding the full view.

“In the back wall of the women's gallery of the old Vilna Shul are images of the resting places of four of the most important women in the Bible,” Kessel said. He said the structure and style of the women’s section is also revealing.

“This was built 1919-1920. It was an Orthodox synagogue, so the men sat separate from the women.” But the women’s section is as large as the men’s, and the women had a clear line of sight — separate but equal, Kessel says, and “virtually unheard of in any other Orthodox Jewish synagogue from this time period.”

“I would ask you to think about those two things in the prism of 1919-1920 and through women's right to vote, the suffrage movement. And maybe there's a little example of Boston's women's liberation and women's importance in the community right here in the hundred-year-old Vilna Shul," he said.

Throughout the building, the Shul seamlessly blends traditional Lithuanian Jewish themes and structures with characteristics of its time and place. It all comes together in the heart of the synagogue, in the ark that holds the Torah scrolls.

Kessel said the ark “really signifies this blending into the community that is here. It looks like a piece of furniture that you would see in one of the fancy mansions on the other side of the hill on the south side.” Perched on the ark is an enormous bald eagle.

“Nothing says I'm proud to be a new American like a big juicy American bald eagle at the top,” he said.

“Then the eternal light is surrounded by like a sunburst. For a lot of experts that have been in the building, they feel it also is a Presbyterian church element. This community, remember, was in the neighborhood for almost 20 years before they built it, interacting with their non-Jewish neighbors, seeing them go to church, seeing their churches,” he said.

“As a matter of fact, the doors that you open and close to get to the Torah scrolls … are carved, inlaid with seashells,” he said. Very New England, Kessel pointed out, but not very kosher. “But, I think, a perfect example of how they wanted to be part of not only America, but the New England and Boston culture.”

This refuge — and the space in which Lithuanian Jews were allowed to thrive — became all the more important after the majority of Jews who remained in Lithuania were murdered in the Holocaust.

“Just the fact that when you approach the building and you see this enormous round, stained glass Star of David — Nothing says I'm proud to be Jewish, but I also have a degree of comfort and safety, which they never had before they got here — to show the world that this is a Jewish space,” Kessel said..

Since its first re-opening in 1994, Kessel said the Shul has embraced and expanded that sensibility, holding not just religious services but events that teach historical awareness and reinforce their sense of community across ethnic or religious lines.

“It's the universal immigrant experience. If the community that built this place came today, they'd be referred to as refugees, right? They ran from persecution from the Russian empire,” he said.

“We feel like it's incumbent on us to open the doors and bring in people to learn from each other, to learn from this experience, to know that there's not a lot of difference. There's a difference of time period of origin of language. But, peel all that stuff off — we're all just in different generational stages of original immigrants,” Kessel said.

The Vilna Shul is holding a "soft reopening" this month, with programming and High Holiday services taking place in the building. The Shul will celebrate a full reopening in May.

This article has been updated.