Friday, July 18, 2008

Richard Meier Luxury Apartments Completed on Brooklyn Site Once Set for Brunner’s Monumental Union Temple

Richard Meier Luxury Apartments Completed on Brooklyn Site Once Set for Brunner’s Monumental Union Temple

Construction is complete and sales are underway of the apartments in the new luxury building “On Prospect Park” designed by architect Richard Meier at Grand Army Plaza in Brooklyn, on the site that was once designated for the monumental Union Temple, a project scuttled by the Great Depression.

Union Temple was created in 1921 by the merger of two older Brooklyn Reform congregations: Temple Israel and K.K. Beth Elohim. The new congregation decided to build a new home at 17 Eastern Parkway, and commissioned Arnold Brunner Associates for the design. Brunner had designed four important synagogue in Manhattan, and many public buildings. The new design was in two parts. First, there was an eleven-story community house, dedicated on the eve of Sukkot in 1929. The building closely resembles the contemporary luxury apartment buildings of Manhattan’s Park Avenue. Union Temple’s Community House was luxurious, too, with all the amenities demanded of a 1920s Synagogue-Center, including a swimming pool and gymnasium (now used by an independent health club).

Work was then to begin on the grand Temple, intended to seat up to 2,000 worshippers. The building design, which is known from only a few presentation drawings, was the last synagogue designed by Brunner, the most prominent and successful American Jewish architect of his generation, who died in February 1925, shortly after the project was announced. Work on the Community House was overseen by William Gehron, who took over most of Brunner’s projects. The design for Union Temple combines two major trends in Brunner’s career; the creation of a classical vocabulary appropriate for American synagogue design, and the creation of monumental pubic buildings to create impressive public spaces in American cities.

The stock market crash of November 1929 and the ensuing Great Depression put an end to those plans. Like many of congregations at the time, Union Temple had to struggle just to maintain membership, and to survive. Worship took place within the Community House. For High Holy Daus the congregation worshiped at the nearby Brooklyn Academy of Music. Only in 1942 was a theater on the lobby level of the Community House was converted into a sanctuary. The site intended for the grand sanctuary was used as a parking lot until it was sold at a high price for the construction of “On Prospect Park.”

When synagogue building revived after the Depression and World War II, Brunner’s classicism was passé. European modernism, of the very type has inspired Richard Meier’s work, was dominant. Meier, whose “On Prospect Park” now “replaces” the unbuilt Unity Temple, knows this history well, since forty-five years ago he organized the influential Jewish Museum exhibition “Recent American Synagogue Architecture.” At that time Meier, still a recent graduate of Cornell’s School of Architecture, had been working for Davis, Brody and Wisniewski (1958-59); and Marcel Breuer (1960-63), both of which firms had been engaged on synagogue projects, which were featured in the exhibition (of related interest, about this same time Meier also shared a studio with artist Frank Stella. Later, he gave Stella a copy of Maria and Kazimierz Piechotka’s Wooden Synagogues, which greatly influenced Stella’s Polish Village series of the 1970s.)

What a shame that Meier himself has never (to my knowledge) designed a synagogue. He has preferred museums as his form of public architecture. There is still time; he recently designed a church a Rome.

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