Friday, April 29, 2016
FRANK LLOYD WRIGHT AND CONSERVATIVE RABBI COLLABORATE TO BUILD UNIQUE BETH SHOLOM SYNAGOGUE
In response to Rabbi Mortimer J. Cohen’s letter describing his vision for a simple, modern synagogue that could hold up to 1500 people, Frank Lloyd Write responded, “Dear Rabbi Cohen, I would like to talk to you concerning your project.” Thus began a six year collaboration between the Rabbi and the world famous Architect that led to the beautiful sanctuary above in Elkins Park, Pennsylvania.
Rabbi Cohen said in his request, cost would be $500,000, there would be no windows but the glass roof and rotunda would let in light. Walls would have acoustic treatment. Included would be classrooms, meeting rooms and storage rooms, all to be air-conditioned. Sketches of his ideas were included. Wright’s goal was to have congregants walk in and feel “as if they were resting in the hands of God.” The gentle slope of the horseshoe formation achieved the goal of seeing others around you no matter where you were seated rather than the backs of heads and profiles. On bright sunny days when a cloud passes overhead, the room darkens, at sunset the room turns gold, and when the sky is blue, you see blue.
This is the only synagogue that Wright ever designed. Many of his textures, colors and geometric motifs such as triangles and hexagons are repeated thruout the structure, creating a powerful design unity. Modern materials were used including concrete, steel and glass, finished with gold tones of bronze and desert sand, using Wrights signature red, and matte silver aluminum.
The building was dedicated on September 20, 1959, five months after Wright’s death. Shortly thereafter both the American Institute of Architects and the National Trust for Historic Preservation singled out Beth Sholom Synagogue as one of the seventeen Wright buildings most worthy of preservation. Later an elevator was added, restrooms were upgraded and sidewalks were widened. Visitors can watch a 20-minute documentary narrated by Leonard Nimoy and study exhibits. Tours are suspended when events are held such as weddings, bar mitzvahs and funerals. No tours are given on Saturdays or Jewish holidays. School continues thruout the year. The vegetable garden grows food for the food pantry.