Beth Sholom Synagogue: Frank Lloyd Wright and Modern Religious Architecture
By Joseph M. Siry
University of Chicago Press, 736 pages, $65
When Rabbi Mortimer J. Cohen contacted Frank Lloyd Wright in November 1953 about designing a new sanctuary for his conservative congregation, Beth Sholom, in the Philadelphia suburb of Elkins Park, the legendary architect had never designed a synagogue since beginning his architectural career 60 years earlier, in 1893. This striking fact appears nearly midway through architectural historian Joseph M. Siry’s important new book, “Beth Sholom Synagogue: Frank Lloyd Wright and Modern Religious Architecture.”
But it raises two fundamental questions about the origins of what is arguably America’s most famous postwar Jewish house of worship. Why, given Wright’s inexperience in synagogue design, did the architect take on the commission? And why did Wright take so long to build a synagogue in the first place?
In explaining his motives — and why Cohen sought him out to begin with — Siry probes deeply into multiple architectural, cultural and religious contexts. The result is that “Beth Sholom Synagogue” is a massive tome. Published in an oversized format and weighing nearly 6 pounds, it contains more than 700 pages of text (including notes) and hundreds of architectural drawings and photographs. It is a beautifully produced work of art in its own right, and it is certain to be the definitive work on its subject. Casual readers may not have the sitzfleisch, or endurance, to give Siry’s extremely detailed analysis the close reading it merits, but those who do will find their efforts rewarded.
Following a brief introduction, Siry spends the first half of his book laying out the larger biographical and architectural contexts for Wright’s design. He explains how the architect’s Unitarian religious background led him to develop a respectful attitude toward Judaism. He discusses how Wright’s experience working at the Chicago firm of Adler & Sullivan exposed him to innovative synagogue designs at the turn of the century, most notably the comparatively modern Kehilath Anshe Ma’ariv, which opened in 1891.
And he shows how the architect’s designs for a series of Christian churches and chapels between the late 1920s and early ’40s helped Wright develop his own unique solution to the central architectural question of how to make a modern construction that would signify a denominational ideal.
After laying out this detailed context, Siry shows how it informed Wright’s plan for Beth Sholom. Counterintuitively, the most notable aspect of Wright’s design was that he devised it not by himself, but in collaboration with Cohen.
Cohen was unusual among postwar American rabbis in taking a direct role in the design of his sanctuary. Like other postwar rabbis who were moving older urban congregations to new suburban settings, he rejected the derivative historicist designs of the late 19th and early 20th centuries and aimed for a synagogue that was distinctively modern. Yet because Cohen also wanted it to be identifiably Jewish, he sought out Wright, whose “organic” brand of architecture was opposed to the sterile machine aesthetic of the International Style, and allowed for the great expression of symbolic content.