When Frank Lloyd Wright, ever the plainspoken Young Turk of modern architecture, even at 86, declared that he would not design “a Jewish synagogue,” it was not the answer his interlocutor and prospective client, Mortimer J. Cohen, rabbi of Philadelphia’s Beth Sholom Congregation, had hoped to hear. But before Cohen could protest, Wright cut him off by saying that he, America’s greatest architect, would be prepared to design “an American synagogue,” a temple for Jews who lived in America.
“That’s just what I want,” Cohen replied. And so it was upon this almost too-cute distinction—an American synagogue for Jews, as opposed to a Jewish synagogue in America—that Cohen and Wright would build their new Beth Sholom in Elkins Park, Pennsylvania, a leafy suburb just north of the congregation’s original home. It was to be nearly the last project of Wright’s life and his only synagogue.
Beth Sholom celebrated its 50th anniversary last year with the opening of a new visitor’s center, a documentary film chronicling the story of its intrepid leader and his architect (see clip below), and a fundraising drive to cover a laundry list of repairs and renovations tentatively scheduled to begin this year. The documentary, An American Synagogue, was written by architect-filmmaker James Sanders and co-directed by Sanders and multimedia designer Alison Cornyn. The pair are currently retooling the film for a television audience; more extensive retooling will be required for the building, which suffers from structural problems that have only worsened in the five decades since its completion.
Wright’s original interview with Cohen actually took place a good while before the 1959 opening—in 1953, in fact. The six intervening years were thick with financial problems, construction delays, and other setbacks, not the least being Wright’s death only a few months before the building’s completion. While he lived, however, his collaboration with Cohen was among the most fruitful of his career, rooted as it was in a shared ambition that the Beth Sholom synagogue should be “a new thing,” as Cohen called it in his first letter to Wright.
“Wright didn’t like the old world mysticism that he associated with Judaism,” says screenwriter Sanders. “He didn’t want to do a Moorish synagogue … and neither did Cohen.” Beth Sholom is certainly not that. A kind of pyramidal teepee, its edges ridged with chrome fins, the structure practically rises straight out of the ground; the sanctuary is a wide, shallow bowl, filled with light from apertures in the vaulted roof above. The most remarkable thing is the floor: Sectioned into geometrical slices, each one set at a different angle from the next, it makes the congregants appear to be cupped “in God’s hands,” as Wright put it. This sense of communal embrace is heightened by the pulpit’s being thrust somewhat into the middle of the room—though not so far as Rabbi Cohen, in his early correspondence with Wright, had suggested.
That remarkable correspondence is at the heart of Sanders and Cornyn’s film. The intellectual partnership that formed between rabbi and architect was so profound that when Wright presented his final plans, he actually credited Cohen as co-designer on the project, an unprecedented act of recognition from the famously megalomaniacal Wright. From the placement of the ark to the symbolism of the building’s decorative scheme, Cohen proved a font of ideas for Wright’s design team at Taliesin, his Wisconsin studio-retreat. The mission on which Cohen and Wright were launched—to find a properly Jewish-American architecture, in a postwar world where America was more and more the center of Judaism—is a theme that Sanders and Cornyn mean to probe even deeper in a revamped version of the film they’re hoping to air on Philadelphia public television.
The original documentary, narrated by Leonard Nimoy, is featured in the new Beth Sholom visitor’s center, designed by Cornyn’s company, Picture Projects, with Venturi, Scott Brown and Associates; but the visitor’s center itself is part of the unfinished work of Cohen and Wright. Their search for an architecture at once modern and Jewish made Beth Sholom—with its open, luminous atmosphere—an emblem for an enlightened and democratic faith. But it came at a price: Leaks, often a problem in Wright buildings, have plagued Beth Sholom for years, dripping down from the glass-and-fiberglass canopy. To fix those leaks, the congregation will need to raise money, and the visitor’s center is one way they’re seeking to attract public attention and contributions.
Other structural flaws need to be addressed as well. “It’s basically a greenhouse,” observes Emily Cooperman, an architecture historian who has done extensive research on behalf of the congregation. Hot in summer, cold in winter, the present Beth Sholom is hardly an environment conducive to worship, especially for older attendees who comprise an ever larger proportion of the congregation. Studies conducted under Cooperman’s supervision will help guide the renovation process as it moves forward—but just as important, notes Alison Cornyn, is that people both in the synagogue and outside it learn its story. “The building really needs to be maintained, but many of the congregants who use it aren’t aware of its significance” to the history of architecture, or the history of American Judaism.
Ian Volner is a Manhattan-based writer, critic, and publicist. He is a regular contributor to the Architectural Record, and his work has also appeared in Bookforum, n+1, and other publications.