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Building Bust

The unbuilt synagogues of the Great Depression

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The most ambitions Jewish plan of the Roaring Twenties was the main campus of the Yeshiva College, the first building of which was dedicated in January 1929. The new campus was located in the heart of middle-class, Jewish New York, at the eastern edge the Washington Heights neighborhood.

A standard style for American universities was collegiate Gothic, intended to confer the prestige of Oxford and Cambridge on New World campuses. Other schools were built in a Classical style, to capture the reflected glory of Greek and Roman learning. The Medical College of Virginia chose Egyptian style on the grounds that the world’s oldest medical knowledge was Egyptian. The trustees of Columbia University voted to design their prestigious new campus (which the trustees of Yeshiva College could almost see from Washington Heights, if they looked over their left shoulders) in Renaissance style, both to capture the glory of northern Italian scholarship and to trump the University of Chicago’s brand-new Gothic campus.

Jewish scholarship was not only older than Oxford, Cambridge, and Columbia put together, it was older than the Renaissance, older even than Rome or Athens. What Yeshiva University needed was a campus in an ancient Jewish architectural style. Architect Henry Beaumont Herts provided one, carefully explaining to The New York Times that his campus was designed in an authentic Jewish style covering 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.

Then, with only the first building of the expansive plan actually built (complete with colorful Moorish tile work and minarets), 1929 happened. When prosperity returned, instead of gardens, arcaded courtyards and domes, the modern university built Belfer Tower, the monolith that looms to the north as you drive east on the Cross-Bronx Expressway. To the administration’s horror, students have used every building on campus as a rappelling course, even towering Belfer and the old minaret.

Plans for Yehsiva University campus

Plans for Yeshiva University campus, New York City, including (top right) ceremonial entrance, (bottom left) library and courtyard garden, and (bottom right) auditorium.

CREDIT: Yeshiva University archive

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Building Bust

The unbuilt synagogues of the Great Depression