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Building Bust

The unbuilt synagogues of the Great Depression

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Architect's plan for Temple Israel, Boston

Architect’s plan for Temple Israel, Boston.

CREDIT: Temple Israel archive

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 façade, 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.

Boston’s Temple Israel had been more or less forced to join the great building boom of the 1920s. After all, Kehillat Israel had completed its new Harvard Street building in 1925, the same year that Mishkan Tefillah finished construction on a gleaming white temple made of Indiana limestone for a congregation with the ambition to be the European-style Great Central Synagogue of Boston. (The would-be Great Synagogue, beautifully restored, is now a flourishing Pentecostal church.) And in 1928, Boston’s oldest congregation, Ohabai Shalom, finished work on an elaborate, copper-domed, Beacon Street edifice.

Clearly, Temple Israel had to replace its 1906 building with something new. Something tasteful, American, and absolutely guaranteed to outshine every other temple in town. Something like a classical temple made of the purest white limestone with two grand wings, an enormous dome, and a façade adorned with no fewer than 26 tall columns. The design for Temple Israel echoes Jefferson’s design for the main building of the University of Virginia. Indeed, had Mr. Jefferson been invited to design a Great American Temple, it may well have looked like the plans for Temple Israel.

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.

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Building Bust

The unbuilt synagogues of the Great Depression