22 August 2009

1929: Jewish buildings unbuilt

Prior to the Great Depression of 1929, one could say that euphoria was rampant in American Jewish life, so writes Diana Muir Appelbaum in her latest Tablet Magazine article.

In the irrational exuberance of 1928, everything seemed possible. Boards of directors could plan enormous synagogues in glistening white stone to rival the Parthenon. Academic dreamers could design a great Jewish university with towers, courtyards, and gardens to challenge the magnificence of Princeton or Oxford. No ambition was too large, no plan too expensive. One had only to hire an architect, draw an elegant fa├žade, and watch the building fund fill. Then, in October, 1929, the great building boom ended with a crash, leaving magnificent synagogues on architects’ drawing boards, forever unbuilt. It all feels very 2008. What follows is a glimpse at some of the more ambitious plans and what, ultimately, became of them.
The article has some great archival plans, renderings and photos of these mega-magnificents.

The story details Boston's Temple Israel, Kehillat Israel and Mishkan Tefillah, as well as the Great Central Synagogue and the city's oldest congregation Ohabai Shalom. Appelbaum details Temple Israel's plans which echo Jefferson's idea for the University of Virginia's main building.

In the architect’s drawing, the four-columned meetinghouse and school building, in use since 1927, are shaded grey. None of the other 22 columns in the plan were ever erected, nor were the buildings that would have risen behind them. In the 1960s, Temple Israel built a spacious, modern sanctuary beside the classical Meeting House of the 1927 plan.
In New York, she writes, the most ambitious plan of the decade was the main campus of Yeshiva College in Washington Heights. Previously, US universities were Gothic in design, while some went with Classical (Virginia's Medical College walked like an Egyptian). Columbia University went Renaissance.

Since Jewish scholarship was older than Gothic, Classic or Renaissance, it needed something else, and the plans of architect Henry Beaumont Herts were designed to cover several centuries BCE.

The campus that emerged from Herts’s drawing-board was an exotic world of courtyards, arches, towers, and domes calculated to put Columbia, Princeton, and Yale to shame and satisfy the most romantic soul ever to dream of life in the Ivory Tower. This particular rendition of the ivied campus dream was the Arabian Nights. The domes were Ottoman, the arches Moorish, and all the towers were minarets.
In the midwest, Temple Mizpah (Chicao) planned a domed, Byzantine synagogue. Only the Hebrew School was built.

Congregation Shaarey Zedek (Detroit) also went Byzantine but on a small scale. They wanted a $750,000 campus, with gym, library, school, offices, chapel, auditorium, banquet hall for 1,200, small sanctuary for 500, main sanctuary for 2,500. What they got was a no-frills (and no gym) $300,000 Byzantine building. When it moved to the suburbs in 1962, it did get a futurist design.

Art Deco and lions were on the grandiose plans for Chicago's Congregation Anshe Emet. All it got was a renovation adding space to pray in the old Hebrew School.

Closer to home - in my case, Brooklyn - was Union Temple's Classic design with an eight-story Hebrew School, the only part finished before the crash. It did, however, get a renovated auditorium for a sanctuary.

Read the complete article and view the historic plans and photographs at the link above.

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