Quick Visit to Former Mishkan
by Samuel D. Gruber
Last week on a drive up I-95 from
The downtown building was designed by Arnold W. Brunner and Thomas Tryon just at the time they were building Congregation Shearith
Brunner’s building (for according to the building committee minutes, Brunner was the lead architect on this project) is noteworthy for its large size, and the tall and massive towers that flank a symmetrical façade dominated by three large arched windows. This is the east end of the building, but this being a Reform synagogue, orientation was not important, and Brunner did not have to place an interior Ark against the main façade wall as he would do at Shearith Israel in New York, which also faces east. Below the arched façade windows are three entrance openings created by square piers, reach by a flight of wide steps. The piers support a wide, decorated brownstone frieze. Above the frieze is a continuous balustrade atop of which sit the large windows. Inside, this theme was picked up at the west end, where a combination of arches and a balustrade emphasized the
The adaptive reuse of this historic and impressive building demonstrates some of the pros and cons of historic preservation of religious buildings. Unfortunately, the original interior is lost – and that was the space that most defined and reflected Reform Jewish practice and Jewish community in New Haven for more than a half century. On the other hand, the massing of the building and most of its exterior survives. This was the public face of Reform Judaism and its effect can still be felt – even though there are no Jewish symbols or inscriptions on the building. Importantly, too, as a piece of urban design, the former synagogue acts as an effective transition from the historic 19th century architect of Orange Street to the modern (and not very distinguished) architecture and urban plaza of Audubon and adjacent streets. Since the building dominates it corner site, it is able to withstand the pressures of size of new structures. Its brick exterior, with a lot of flat wall surface, also is compatible with newer buildings behind it. Unfortunately, the grand south flank has been girded by a unsympathetic one-story addition of brick, glass and broad concrete arches that while practical, undermines the building’s base.
N.B. For more on this building and other historic synagogues in