Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Arnold W. Brunner, Denzel Washington & American Gangster

Arnold W. Brunner, Denzel Washington, American Gangster & Temple Israel of Harlem
by Samuel D. Gruber

Many of you may know that I have been researching the life and work of American Jewish architect Arnold W. Brunner, in this 150th year since his birth. So it is natural that I might tend towards over emphasizing Brunner's importance, presence and influence. Indeed, I have recently identified a few unattributed synagogue buildings outside of
New York as likely works by Brunner, or at least high-quality knock-offs.

Still, I wasn't thinking Brunner when I took time off to relax and watch the very good (but very violent) Ridley Scott film American Gangster with Denzel Washington and Russell Crowe. But sure enough, as the film reaches its climactic end, there was Brunner! With the cops closing in, Denzel Washington (as drug dealer Frank Lucas) takes his family to church, and as soon as he opened the door - without even revealing much - I knew he was in Mt. Olivet Baptist Church at 120th & Lenox Ave. (now also Malcolm x Boulevard) in Harlem, formerly Temple Israel, Brunner's most monumental (completed) synagogue, dedicated in 1907. Most of the camera work is on Denzel Washington, so one only glimpses the impressive east wall of the sanctuary. There one sees the classical aedicule of the original
Ark still intact, now (and probably since 1920) with a cross suspended above it. This continues this weeks theme of synagogues into churches - and expands it it include churches into Hollywood sets.

This building was only a synagogue for a short time. It’s dedication on
May 17, 1907, was covered in the New York Times. The new building was described, but the architect was not mentioned: “The new edifice is of the Grecian type of architecture, and is built of light gray brick and granite. Within the temple is severely simple, being entirely in white. The only bit of gorgeous color is made by the doors of the ark. This, like the pipes of the great organ, is of gold, and the arch over it is supported with columns of marble. The choir loft is sustained by six monoliths of marble.”

Today the interior is richly painted, so Brunner’s serene classicism (still visible in SyracuseTemple Society of Concord - see earlier blog) – is less easy to see. But all the original architectural details, and the stained glass windows, are there.

The opening of the synagogue coincided with the beginning of the transition of Harlem to New York's (and America's) Africa-American cultural capital. Temple Israel sold the building in 1920 and moved to the Upper West Side (to another classical-style synagogue, this one designed by Willian Tachau and now Young Israel of the Upper West Side). The building as church witnessed the Harlem (Black) Renaissance and the subsequent vicissitudes of the neighborhood - now once again on the up-and-up.

I attach some recent pictures of
Mt. Olivet Baptist Church which show it better. It is well maintained, and a much loved Harlem landmark - at least unofficially. I think it is not listed on the National Register of Historic Places, nor is it a New York City Landmark.

This isn’t the first Brunner building to make it to the movies. The 1981 film version of E.L, Doctorow’s Ragtime (directed by Milos Forman) featured the former Renaissance Revival style Free Public Baths on East 11th Street near Tompkins Square, built in 1904-05. That structure was designated a New York City Landmark earlier this year.

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