Deconstructing Philip

By Michael Z. Wise

Published October 20, 2006, issue of October 20, 2006.
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When the synagogue that Philip Johnson designed free of charge to atone for his antisemitic past added a canopy over its entry two decades ago, the celebrated architect complained that the vinyl overhang was a blot on his creation.

Now, less than two years after Johnson’s death, the congregation has gutted the synagogue’s cathedral-like interior and sold off an important avant-garde ensemble of aesthetic and ritual objects that were a central part of Johnson’s original design.

Opened in 1956, the Congregation Kneses Tifereth Israel synagogue in Port Chester, N.Y., is a pivotal work in Johnson’s influential career since it was the first public commission in which he began veering away from austere modernism to incorporate neo-classical design. But in recent years, many congregants found the sanctuary with its 40-foot-high ceiling to be cold and unwelcoming, and others had little appreciation for the huge abstract wire sculpture titled “Creation” that served as a backdrop to the bimah.

“This is a synagogue, not a museum,” said Rabbi Jaymee Alpert, explaining that the high pulpit and its rigid seating arrangement no longer served the congregation’s needs. “We needed to change it so that it can continue to be a vibrant place.”

The architect of the new interior, Michael Berkowicz, said that when the Jewish Museum in New York expressed interest in acquiring the bimah material, “many [congregants] were surprised that anybody would want it. They were so down on it. It was just, ‘Let’s get rid of it.’”

The curator of the museum’s Judaica collection, Fred Wasserman, said that with its purchase of the ark housing the holy Torah scrolls, the eternal light above it, four pulpit chairs and a vast abstract wall sculpture, the Jewish Museum had prevented the ensemble’s dispersal and planned to spotlight it later this fall in the permanent exhibition on Fifth Avenue.

In considering the purchase, the museum’s acquisitions committee debated the issue of Johnson’s support for Nazism during World War II — with committee member Paul Wolff arguing that this was cause for rejection. But esteem for the cultural and historical value of the mid-20th century design objects ultimately prevailed, and the $60,000 acquisition was approved by a 6-1 vote in June.

In 1934, Johnson quit his Museum of Modern Art curator’s job and worked for demagogic Senator Huey Long and antisemitic broadcaster Rev. Charles Coughlin, for whom he designed a campaign grandstand modeled on one he saw used by Hitler at a rally in Potsdam. Johnson later accepted an invitation from the Nazi Propaganda Ministry to accompany the Wehrmacht on its invasion of Poland. After the war, he voiced regret over his political foray, making a bid at expiation with the pro bono synagogue project and by designing a nuclear reactor for Israel. “In my view, doing the Port Chester synagogue commission without fee was inadequate as an atonement,” Wolff, a Washington attorney, said of his opposition to the acquisition.

The Westchester County synagogue, which the congregation originally agreed not to alter without Johnson’s consent, has now been renovated for the first time since its completion half a century ago. Work began in mid-June and was largely complete in mid-September just before Rosh Hashanah.

While the bimah area has been transformed, Johnson’s central architectural elements — a grand elliptical foyer inspired by the Baroque period, an innovative plaster interior canopy that stretches like fabric across the soaring sanctuary ceiling, and 286 vertical slit windows of stained glass — have not been substantially changed.

But the Johnson-designed bimah, which the congregants considered too diminutive, and the original Johnson-designed wooden pews were ripped out, as was the expansive wall sculpture by Ibram Lassaw, one of several noted Abstract Expressionists, including Robert Motherwell and Adolph Gottlieb, who created works for American synagogues in the 1950s. The sculpture, 30 feet long and 12 feet high, has been interpreted by some as representing the original chaos of the universe. Johnson (always one to enjoy private architectural jokes) placed a not dissimilar, but smaller Lassaw sculpture behind the double bed in his New Canaan, Connecticut guest house, and crowned the bed with its own plaster canopy around the same time as using those very elements in the synagogue.

Some congregants derided the ark as “Danish furniture” and referred to the Lassaw bimah work as the “barbed wire sculpture,” according to Berkowicz. The Lassaw-designed eternal light, which hung off center above the bimah, resembled a massive starburst and hung so low that congregants often inadvertently struck it when lifting the Torah as part of their prayer ritual.

Along with a new, far larger ark set against a backdrop of Jerusalem stone, a handicapped accessible bimah has been added and the roof and skylights replaced. “Tastes change,” said congregation president David Heiser. “Wide ties yield to narrow ties. It’s not a condemnation of what you’re no longer wearing. It’s an acceptance of what’s more palatable.” The original wooden pews have been donated to local churches to make way for a less formal seating arrangement created by Berkowicz, who has also redesigned Manhattan’s Sutton Place Synagogue.

About 20% of the congregation wanted to retain the original elements. “Individual congregants were aware to a lesser or greater extent about Mr. Johnson’s background, but his background was not a factor” in the decision to redesign the sanctuary, Heiser said. But Berkowicz said that after congregants read of Johnson’s Nazi past when his obituaries appeared in 2005, “it gave some people license to be more critical and maybe even disrespectful of the landmark value of the building.”

The Jewish Museum sees it differently. “This is an amazing acquisition for us and an incredible opportunity,” said curator Wasserman, who expects to display the works near the museum’s far older collection of synagogue arks from Urbino, Isfahan and Bavaria. “This is a very, very rare opportunity to be able to showcase this very important period of synagogue art of the mid-20th century.”

Michael Z. Wise is the author of “Capital Dilemma: Germany’s Search for a New Architecture of Democracy” (Princeton Architectural Press) and a contributing editor at Travel + Leisure.

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