The memorial center was founded in 1980 and is accommodated in the pre-war Jewish community's synagogue. The synagogue, together with the attached Rabbinerhaus (House of the Rabbi), which today houses the Salomon Ludwig Steinheim Institute, was finished after a two-year construction period in 1913. It was originally consecrated as the Neue Synagoge (New Synagogue). Today the building is one of the largest, best preserved and architecturally most impressive testimonies to Jewish culture in pre-war Germany.
The Essen synagogue was the cultural and social center of the Jewish community. In 1933 it claimed approximately 5,000 members. It served this function until the so-called "Reichspogromnacht" (also known as Kristallnacht) of 9–10 November 1938, when it was severely damaged on the inside by plundering, though the exterior remained nearly intact. Although Essen itself was very heavily bombed (see Bombing of Essen in World War II), the building itself managed to survive the Second World War without further damage.
From 1945-1959 the former synagogue stood unused as ruin at the edge of the Essen city center. In 1959, the surviving Jewish community, after it had been using Rabbinerhaus as their center, built a new, much smaller synagogue, which is the current place of worship. In the same year, the city of Essen acquired the former synagogue and in the following years of 1960/1961 renovated it into a museum for industrial design, the "Haus Industrieform". For this purpose, all existing elements were removed or painted over. The ark for the torah was destroyed; the mosaics and ornaments were painted over. Following the spirit of the time, the inside was completely redesigned to a much more sober form to fit the purpose, no longer showing its former use as a synagogue. The main prayer hall was divided by a new floor and the ceiling was covered up.
A fire, caused by a short-circuit, severely damaged the Design exhibition in 1979. This event and a changed attitude toward handling historic buildings finally caused the city council of Essen to found the current institution Alte Synagoge. From 1986-1988 the entire building, with financial means provided by the state of North Rhine-Westphalia, was reconstructed, so that it is again recognizable in its earlier function.
Today the Alte Synagoge is an open house for meetings and discussions. It offers a meeting-place for those interested in Jewish culture and religion, past and present. Cultural events such as concerts, plays, and readings are also offered.