Thursday, April 16, 2015

A Look at the High Front Dome in Synagogue Architecture

New York, NY. Temple Beth El. Brunner & Tryon, archs. (1891). Demolished 1947.

New York, NY. Temple Beth El. Brunner & Tryon, archs. (1891). Demolished 1947.

A Look at the High Facade Dome in Synagogue Architecture
by Samuel D. Gruber

When I recently gave a lecture at the center for Jewish History on the synagogues of New York I showed in passing an image of the former Temple Beth El, designed by Brunner & Tryon and built in 1891 on Fifth Avenue at 76th Street. The impressive building, described in the New York Times at the time of its opening as ""magnificently decorated," was demolished in 1947.  After the lecture, I was asked "what was that big thing on the front of the building?" That "thing" seems strange to use today because most of the 19th and early 20th century examples of this synagogue element have been destroyed. 

In the words of architectural historian Rachel Wischnitzer, that element at Beth El  was a "large, hipped, axial dome, tied to the front part of the basilican structure and covered with a ribbed and patterned, gilded decoration." The feature joined two disparate forms from the well-known contemporary architectural language. Thus, what was essentially a tall French Empire Mansard-style dome was given orientalizing (or Moorish) decoration recalling in its patterned ribbing  the Oranienburgerstrasse Synagogue of Berlin. By 1891 the once strange Oriental or Moorish style was now fully accepted and widely understood as a "Jewish" style - whatever its origins.

Berlin, Germany. Oranienburgerstrasse Synagogue. Eduard Knoblach, arch. (1859-66).

This facade dome seems strange to us today, but a hundred years ago, beginning with the attention paid to the Oranienburgerstrasse Synagogue in Berlin, it was one of many familiar branding devices used by synagogue architects.  Though sometimes domed facades could be found on secular buildings, this form was rarely used for churches, which might have a central facade tower as in the tradition of Christopher Wren, but never a tower with a dome.  So this striking form can almost be called a synagogue device.

Jelgava, Latvia. Great Synagogue. 1860?

I thought it would be interesting to take a look at some of the predecessors of Beth El, and how the form continues into the early 20th century. 

The tall hipped dome, often called a French Dome, was first used in synagogue architecture by the Italian architect and engineer Alessandro Antonelli for the synagogue of Torino (Turin), Italy, which came to be known as the Mole Antonelliana, begun in 1863 and finished only in 1889.  Though started as a synagogue, the Torino Jewish Community sold the building  to the city in 1876 as height and costs soared. The community had previously halted construction and built a proprietary tall hipped  roof, a version of which was incorporated into finished building. Brunner had traveled widely in Germany and was familiar with publications about synagogues, so he certainly was familiar with the Oranienburgerstrasse Synagogue. He would have known - at least form pictures - the Mole Antonelliana, too. 

Torino, Italy. Mole Antonelliana. Photo by Giacomo Brogi (1822-1881)

Torino, Italy. Mole Antonelliana.

There were, however, two more immediate sources for the Beth El dome, one in New York and one in Chicago, and both designed by Jewish architects.  New York architect Henry Fernbach, for whom Arnold Brunner had worked while still a teenager, designed the new Shaaray Tefilah Synagogue on West 44th Street, which opened in 1869. At that time Shaaray Tefila was nominally Orthodox, though during the next decade the congregation modified its service and identified more with the nascent Reform Movement. This was almost certainly Brunner's own congregation. His grandfather Barnet Solomon was president of the congregation when the new synagogue was built, and presumably this is where young Arnold would have received his religious training and celebrated his Bar Mitzvah in 1870. In many ways Brunner's Beth El recalls Fernbach's design, especially in the disposition of the facade and the placement of a large dome over the central entrance. This dome was multi-partite and seems to have been decorated with stars on its outer shell.

New York, NY. Congregation Shaaray Tefila, 127 West 44th Street. Henry Fernbach, arch. (1869). Photo: Moses King, King’s Handbook to New York. Boston: Moses King, 1893 (2nd edition), 403.

New York, NY. Shaaray Tefila, 127 West 44th Street. Henry Fernbach, architect (1868-69). Illustration from Simon Cohen, Shaaray Tefila: A History of its Hundred Years reproduced in Stern et al New York 1880, p. 328

 Chicago, IL. Sinai Temple, Adler and Burling, 1875-76. Photo from: Faith  and Form, p39

A few years later in Chicago, one of the first distinctive synagogues in the city,  Sinai Temple, was designed by Dankmar Adler and Edward Burling. The congregation held a competition and Adler and Burling won over four other architectural firms. Adler's Jewish credentials may have helped win the commission, which he executed with the help of John H. Edelmann, possibly assisted by young Louis  Sullivan.  The interior stenciled wall decoration is said to have been developed by Sullivan.Typically throughout his career Adler was most interested in structural, engineering, material and acoustic problems and left much of the decoration of this buildings to others. Sinai Temple was built in 1875 at the corner of Indiana Avenue and 21stStreet, as part of the post-fire rebuilding of the city.  the new structure combined mostly Romanesque detailing with distinctive French Second Empire elements, most notably a projecting central façade pavilion topped by a tall square dome surmounted by a hipped Mansard roof flanked by lower towers with similar domes. Adler was an engineer and he design is probably tied directly to the example in Torino, a program like the Eiffel Tower, much watched in the engineering profession. For more on Adler see my earlier post here.

The experience of Fernbach's Shaarey Tefila combined with Adler's innovative dome surely inspired Brunner. In 1884, Adler & Sullivan designed side galleries for the auditorium and in 1891 the firm totally remodeled the and expanded the building, so that little of the original interior remained, but the distinctive facade dome remained.
Chicago, Illinois. Zion Temple, original design. Dankmar Adler, arch. (1884). Illustrated in Gregersen, Dankmar Adler (1990), fig 41.
In the early 1880s Adler & Sullivan designed Chicago's Zion Temple dedicated on September 5, 1885. This original design drew more directly form the Mole Antonelliana, since tall towers were affixed to the top not one, but two, towers with hipped Mansard domes.  In the end, however, the towers were not built. The congregation probably did not want the type to bear the extra cost and suffer as did the Italian congregation. Adler scholar Charles E. Gregerson writes "Although the original design of the front with its twin onion-domed towers would have made the building somewhat monumental, the omission of these features in the completed building gave it a stumpy appearance that Sullivan's crude Moorish-inspired details only accentuated." [Charles E. Gregerson,  Dankmar Adler: His Theaters and Auditoriums, with a biography of Dankmar Adler prepared in collaboration with Joan W. Saltzstein.  (Athens, Ohio: Swallow Press/Ohio University Press, 1990), p 62-3].

  Port Gibson, Mississippi. Synagogue. Photo: David Abramson.
A variation on the theme can be seen in the lovely little Moorish style Temple Gemiluth Chassed, designed by architects Bartlett & Budemeyer, and built in Port Gibson, Mississippi, built in 1891-92, almost exactly contemporary with Brunner's Temple Beth El.

In the early 20th century there were many examples and variations of the central square facade dome in European synagogues.  All the European synagogues of this type have not all been identified, but a quick survey (in my image collection) shows examples from Poland (Czestochowa, 1899-1909), Germany (Osnabrück, 1906) and Russia (Samara, 1908).
This may be an unusual case of reverse influence, with the impetus for the square facade domes coming from America. But there were already centrally placed domes on square towers in Europe, too, such as that on the Tlomackie Street Synagogue in Warsaw, built by Italian architect Leandro Marconi, in 1874-1878.

Warsaw, Poland. Tlomackie Street Synagogue, Leandro Marconi, arch. (1874-1878).

Czestochowa, Poland. Former synagogue, built 1899-1909, destroyed 1939.
Osnabrück, Germany. Synagogue, built 1906, at 3-5 Rolandstrasse (present day Alte Synagogenstrasse, before Kristallnacht. Photo:

Samara, Russia. Great Synagogue, 1908. Photo: Historic postcard illustrated in V, Likhodedov, Synagogues, p78. for a recent digital reconstruction of the synagogue see:

If you know of other examples of similar synagogues with facade domes, please let me know. 

Friday, March 20, 2015

USA: Winter Can't Stop Preparations for Burlington, Vermont Mural Move

Preparations in the summer and  fall were made to protect the mural and ready it for the move to Ohavi Zedek Synagogue.

Despite snow and ice, work proceeded with the construction of the protect work shed.

USA: Winter Can't Stop Preparations for Burlington, Vermont Mural Move
by Samuel D. Gruber 

All photos courtesy of Ohavi Zedek Synagogue. You can follow the Lost Shul Mural on Facebook at and 

(ISJM) It has been a cold and snowy winter in Burlington, Vermont (but that is hardly unexpected). It has not stopped the conservation and engineering team of the Lost Shul Mural Project of Ohavi Zedek Synagogue from working hard in preparation for the move of the mural when the weather warms. A lot has happened with the project since I last reported at length on this blog in 2013. You can read more about the history, art and planning of the proejct at

Conservator Connie Silver protects the edges of the mural in preparation for the move.

Last spring consolidation and cleaning of the 1910 synagogue mural took place and funds were successfully raised for the move. Careful conservation and technical planning really began in May 2014 and continued through the fall ,as the team confronted the details of the unprecedented task and developed methods to cope with every conceivable problem that might arise. the team of conservators widened, and all of the architects, engineers and construction contractors became fully engaged and focused. 

In this third  and most difficult (and expensive) phase the project, beginning last October,  there have been four main inter-related activities:

First, the mural itself needed to be protected so that the painstakingly conserved paint surface suffers no damage during the construction work and removal of part of the roof, and then during the full cutting, lifting and moving of the roof section upon which the mural is painted.

Conservator and carpenter work on the removal of the damaged inscription panel at the bottom of the mural. 

Second, the outer roof had to be removed to inspect and reinforce from behind the lathe and plaster upon which the mural is painted. To do this, however, required the construction of a temporary work shed that encloses the entire apse of the former synagogue and the area of investigation and removal. While the shed was still going up the conservation team managed to have a few slates removed for an early peak inside - with the help of a "Go-Pro" mini-video cameras. But then, the entire work shed needed to be carefully attached to the main building while maintaining weather-tight connections, and then topped off and secured.

Videographer, Paul Gittlesohn, feeds a "Go-Pro" mini-video camera inside one of the mural walls, while art conservator Connie Silver, watches the video feed to evaluate the condition of the mural plaster.
Conservator Connie Silver discusses plaster reinforcement strategies with experts Norman R. Weiss and Irving Slavid from MCC Materials, Inc.

Adding the roof trusses (by crane) to the temporary work shed.
The completed shed, entirely enclosing the apse and apse roof.

The completed shed, entirely enclosing the apse and apse roof.  The shed leaves plenty of room for the conservators and engineers to do their work - all in the dead of winter.

Third, the slate shingles of the roof had to be meticulously removed to avoid breakage. The nails attaching the shingles to the roof had to be sawn by hand. Each slate was then carefully marked so they could be reinstalled when the entire process is over.  Only then, when the back of the mural plaster and lathe was reveal could the stability of the plaster be tested and then reinforced.
 Proper precaution against lead are taken in the disassembling phase.

Earlier this week the back of the plaster is finally revealed this setting the stage for treatment which will happen later this month.

Each slate shingle was carefully labeled after removal.
Fourth, while all this has been going, preparations have been in progress at Ohev Shalom Synagogue, where to where the mural will be moved. This month structural supports are being inserted in the ceiling and wall of the vestibule  where the mural will eventually hang.

Preparing the insertion of steel supports in the wall and steel cables from the ceiling of the vestibule are where the mural will eventually hang. 

Since the project got into gear in alt 2013 over $300,000 has been raised, allowing for a meticulously planned project for the unprecedented move of the mural and the roof to which it is attached. The Project will continue to raise funds to pay for the move and the installation and then the necessary in situ final conservation and restoration. The fourth phase of the project will be the development of educational programming and and exhibition materials.  

Donations are accepted for the project via the website and major sponsors still need to be identified and their support will be very welcome and gratefully acknowledged.

Monday, February 9, 2015

International Survey of Jewish Monuments at College Art Association


(International Survey of Jewish Monuments at College Art Association)
 All welcome, no conference registration needed

Thursday, February 12, 2015, 12:30-2:00 p.m.

Hilton New York, 3rd Floor, West Ballroom

1335 Avenue of the Americas (54th St), New York 

Jamaican Jewish gravestone revealed. Photo: Emma Lewis 2015.

Trends and New Initiatives in Jewish Heritage Documentation and Preservation

“Review of Recent Jewish Heritage Initiatives”

Samuel D. Gruber, Gruber Heritage Global

"Jamaican Jewish Cemeteries: On the Ground and in the Cloud"
Rachel Frankel, AIA & Joseph M deLeon

Discussion and Reports from the Floor


N.B. At the conference that morning is the session:

Time: 02/12/2015, 9:30 AM—12:00 PM Location: Hilton New York, 2nd Floor, Madison Suite

[Entry for registered conferecne participants only. Single session registration is available.]

Chair: Mohammad Gharipour, Morgan State University

Decorating Synagogues in the Western Islamic World: The Role of Sephardi Traditionalism
Vivian B. Mann, The Jewish Theological Seminary

Tracing the Four Column Tevah Synagogue Type in Ottoman Lands
Samuel D. Gruber, International Survey of Jewish Monuments

Synagogues of the Fez Mellah: Constructing Sacred Spaces in Nineteenth-Century Morocco Michelle H. Craig, independent scholar

The Architecture and Décor of the Synagogues of Tangier: Modernization and Internationalization of the Jewish Community
Mitchell Serels

Monday, February 2, 2015

Happy Birthday Nathan Myers (b. Feb 2 1875, Newark, NJ)

Newark, NJ. B’nai Abraham Synagogue. Nathan Myers, arch (1922-24). Photo: Samuel D. Gruber 2008

Elizabeth, NJ, Hersch Tower. Nathan Myers with Joseph Sanford Stanley, arch (1931). Photo: Wikipedia

Happy Birthday Nathan Myers (b. Feb 2 1875, Newark, NJ)
by Samuel D. Gruber 

Today is the 140th birthday a talented Newark-based Jewish architect Nathan Myers, who created on of the most celebrated synagogues of the 1920s along with many other buildings.

Nathan Myers lived his whole life in Newark. He was born Feb. 2, 1875 to Marcus and Julia Myers. He graduated from Cornell University’s College of Architecture in 1896 with a B.S. in architecture. Cornell was very welcoming to Jewish students had already graduated several successful young architects. Myers immediately began his practice of architecture in Newark in 1896 and worked in and around the city until his death in 1937.  His best known work is the B’nai Abraham synagogue and social center in Newark, begun in 1922 and dedicated in 1924. 

The synagogue, now the Deliverance Temple, is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.  The 2,000 seat former synagogue was considered when built one of the finest in the country. At the Temple's opening in 1924, congregation officials pronounced the buildings to be "models of completeness, judged from the standpoint of fitness and adaptability for Jewish worship and activities. They stand as a copy of no building nor group of buildings and in carrying out his own ideas and endeavoring to meet the congregation needs, the architect has displayed unusual skill." Despite the fame of the building, Myers was a member of Newark's B’nai Jeshurun Synagogue.

Newark, NJ. B’nai Abraham Synagogue. Nathan Myers, arch (1922-24). Photo: Samuel D. Gruber 2007

 Newark, NJ. B’nai Abraham Synagogue. Nathan Myers, arch (1922-24). Photo: Samuel D. Gruber 2008

Newark, NJ. B’nai Abraham Synagogue. Nathan Myers, arch (1922-24). Photo: Samuel D. Gruber 2008
Newark, NJ. B’nai Abraham Synagogue, sanctuary. Nathan Myers, arch (1922-24). Photo: Samuel D. Gruber 2008

Newark, NJ. B’nai Abraham Synagogue, sanctuary. Nathan Myers, arch (1922-24). Photo: Samuel D. Gruber 2008

Already in 1902 Myers had designed Temple Congregation Anshe Russia in Newark, which was illustrated in the Brickbuilder (11: 6-7, 1902)

 Newark, NJ. Temple Congregation Anshe Russia, 1902. Nathan Myers, architect. 

Myers also was the architect of Beth El Synagogue in Waterbury, CT., built by Shapiro & Sons in 1929. Designed in a stripped down Byzantine style, with a prominent hemispheric dome, it was one of many synagogues of the period that helped prepare the country for the introduction of modernism after World War II. 

Waterbury, CT., Beth El Synagogue,  Nathan Myers, arch, built by Shapiro &; Sons (1929).
Photo: Connecticut Jewish History 2:1 (Fall 1991), 139

Other known buildings were Lyceum Theater in Newark (1904); the Bamberger Broadcasting Company power station in Kearny, NJ;  St. Ann's Villa at Convent Station, NJ; and St. Paul's AME Zion Church in Orange, NJ.

His best known late building was the 14-story Art Deco Hersch Tower in midtown Elizabeth, New Jersey. designed with Joseph Sanford Stanley, who worked for Myers in his Newark office after graduation from Princeton, from 1929 to 1935 (he would later gain prominence as an architect of religious buildings)Built in 1931 at the beginning of the  Great Depression  by businessman Louis F. Hersh, it was the tallest building in the city at the time.  

According to Who's Who in American Jewry 1926, Nathan Myers married Estelle Gerber on January 1, 1901 and then remarried Minnie Rose Rich on May 21, 1922, in New York. He died in 1937. While several of his individual buildings are of note and worth saving when still extant and worth remembering when they are not, Myers is most interesting for the entirety of his career - which deserves more study. Nathan Myers is an example the third generation Jewish-American architect - professionally trained and deeply rooted to a particular place, where over the decades he made his mark. There were other Jewish architects like him Rochester and Albany, and further west. He was stylistically eclectic - but with strong classical leanings and ready to embrace more stripped-down modern decorative styles in the late 1920s and early 1930s. Many clients were probably Jewish - either businessmen or Jewish congregations. It is unclear to me whether Lewis F. Hersch of Elizabeth, whose grandfather ran C. Hersh & Sons Dry Goods Store begun in 1866, was Jewish or German, but I suspect the former.

If you have information about Nathan Myers, like me know.