USA: North Suburban Synagogue Beth El, a Percival Goodman Designed "Jeweled Crown" in Highland Park, Illinois
by Samuel D. Gruber
[14 July 2016. n.b. this post has been corrected to reflect the contribution of architects Bernheim and Kahn in the late 1980s]
When in the Chicago area recently I had the chance to visit for the first time the North Suburban Synagogue Beth El (NSSBethEl) in Highland Park, Illinois. The congregation was founded in 1947, and after opening a new school building in 1953, built a community center and auditorium, where services were held beginning in 1957. Only then did work begin for a purpose-built sanctuary, and this was designed by Percival Goodman and begun by 1962.
(Read history of the congregation here). Additions have been made to the complex in the years since, including a new and attractive entrance in the 1980s.
Dedicated in 1964, the fine and distinctive building, referred to as "a jeweled crown" because of its shape and decoration, is too little known in the world of synagogue architecture, and certainly has been overshadowed by its near-contemporary neighbor, the North Shore Congregation Israel by Minoru Yamasaki. NSSBethEl, however, surely ranks among the best designed and best preserved synagogues of the 1960s. In addition to its architecture, it houses an impressive ark, menorah and other metalwork by Ludwig Wolpert.
NSSBethEl is one of several synagogues of this period in which architect Goodman was clearly trying to come up with striking new designs in competition with the much publicized grand-gesture work of star (and not Jewish) architects Frank Lloyd Wright, Walter Gropius, Pietro Belluschi, Yamasaki and others - while maintaining the warmth and almost vernacular simplicity that marked his early work and adoption of everyday materials.