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Jewish American Historical Places: Beth Sholom Synagogue

Elkins Park, Pennsylvania

The Beth Sholom Synagogue in Elkins Park, Montgomery Park, Pennsylvania, was designated a National Historic Landmark on March 29, 2007 for its national significance as one of the most important works of the great American architect Frank Lloyd Wright (1867 –1959). As an NHL, it is automatically listed in the National Register of Historic Places. The building’s significance is equal to that of such other National Historic Landmarks as Wright’s First Unitarian Society Meeting House in Sherwood Hills, Wisconsin, the Johnson Wax Company Administrative offices and Research Laboratories in Racine, Wisconsin and the Marin County Civic Center in San Rafael, California.

Beth Sholom was one of a handful of Wright buildings singled out in 1959 by the American institute of Architects and the National Trust for Historic Preservation for their invaluable contribution to American culture. Wright’s contribution to architecture and overall influence in this country and across the world places him in the company of the most famous architects of history. He worked on well over 1,000 projects including houses, office buildings, churches, schools, libraries, bridges, stores and museums. Of these projects, an estimated 430 were seen to completion and a vast majority of these are still standing. As Wright’s only commission for a synagogue and his only non-Christian ecclesiastical design, Beth Shalom Synagogue possesses singularity among an already rarified group of Wright-conceived religious buildings. It also is noteworthy for the unusually collaborative relationship between Wright and Beth Sholom’s rabbi, Mortimer J. Cohen (1894-1972). The finished building is a striking religious design quite unlike any other and is a benchmark in Wright’s career, mid-20th century architectural trends, and in the history of American Judaism.

Beth Shalom Congregation was founded in the Logan neighborhood of north Philadelphia in 1919 during a period of rapid expansion for Conservative Judaism in American cities. Beth Sholom’s first building (constructed from plans by local architect Jacob Feldstein), was located at the intersection of Broad Street, the city’s principal north-south thoroughfare, and Courtland Street. Just as Beth Sholom’s founding corresponded to the pre-Depression pattern of expansion for Conservative Judaism in the United States, the congregation’s decision to move out of Philadelphia after World War II reflected the postwar “synagogue boom” in the American suburbs. As historian Jack Wertheimer has noted, this boom stemmed from a substantial demographic shift within Conservative Jewish congregations. In this, Jews coming of age after the war broke with the patterns of previous urban generations and joined the general American population in the postwar middle-class exodus from the cities. Rabbi Mortimer Cohen (who had been with the congregation since its founding) and Beth Sholom’s board began contemplating the move that would lead to Wright’s commission in the late 1940s, purchasing the Elkins Park property in January, 1949. Philadelphia architect Isaac Demchik (1890-1980), a member of the congregation who specialized in synagogue design, planned the Beth Shalom Annex, a new school for the congregation, which was completed in 1951. However, due to other synagogues relocating in the area, Rabbi Cohen won over the congregation in suggesting that the synagogue relocate to Elkins Park.

Frank Lloyd Wright’s engagement with Beth Shalom began with a suggestion made by sculptor Boris Blai (1890-1985), the dean of the nearby Tyler School of Art. In November 1953, Rabbi Cohen wrote to Wright and introduced himself. Wright was then enjoying a second “golden age”, designing the Price Tower, the Dallas Theater, the Annunciation Greek orthodox Church and the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum. Rabbi Cohen’s letter established the working relationship between the two men---specifically, that the rabbi would take the lead in explaining and interpreting Jewish practices and beliefs as Wright proceeded with the building’s design. Enclosed with the letter were lengthy notes that explained relevant aspects of Jewish liturgy and philosophy as well as the congregation’s needs. Rabbi Cohen was involved in the design work, writing letters to Wright about the symbolic meaning of various architectural features, including the entrance canopy, which the rabbi wrote:

"I would like to see the covering, in stylized form of course, represent the hands of the ancient priests, outstretched in blessing…My thought is this: Imagine two hands together in prayer. Then, pivoting them on the thumb and first (index) fingers, revolve them up until both hands are in one plane. This will give you the triangular effect of the present covering."

Wright changed his design, resulting in the canopy still welcoming visitors today.

Fundraising began in June 1954 followed by a ground breaking ceremony on November 14, 1954. Wright and his staff completed working drawings for bidding purposes early in 1955. Delays in materials and slowed the project, and Wright died before it was completed. Wright died in May 1959 (last visiting the site in January 1959). Beth Shalom officially opened on September 20, 1959. The synagogue, as envisioned by Frank Lloyd Wright and Rabbi Mortimer Cohen has been used continually for worship services and has survived essentially unaltered since 1959. The synagogue building is composed in a single, complex volume. It consists of a glazed, pyramidal tower, broad in form and made up of three sides, and a base of reinforced concrete, steel, and glass. These components rise from an irregular, yet bilaterally symmetrical, hexagonal plan in which the main (west) elevation faces Old York Road with the southeast and northeast elevations coming to a point opposite, facing east. This axis orients the worshippers to the arks placed near the building’s eastern point, facing in the direction of Jerusalem, an orientation that reflects a planning convention used in many Conservative Jewish synagogues built in the mid-20th century. The two-part arrangement of the exterior reflects a two-part arrangement of interior space: the upper, main sanctuary contained within in the glazed, tripod tower situated over a smaller sanctuary and social and service spaces on the ground floor of the base.

Brendan Gill, who among the well-known Wright authors speaks most eloquently on Beth Sholom and its importance, described the process of designing Beth Shalom Synagogue as “one of the most important events in Wright’s career.”

Sources: National Parks Service; photos courtesy of Beth Sholom Congregation