Monday, September 29, 2008

Los Angeles's Famed Wilshire Boulevard Temple to be Restored

Los Angeles's Famed Wilshire Boulevard Temple to be Restored
by Samuel D. Gruber

The Wilshire Boulevard Temple (the third home of Congregation B’nai B’rith of Los Angeles), is about to undergo a massive multi-million dollar restoration. The project, which will probably cost more the $30 million is part of an ambitious program of the congregation to renew its historic sanctuary and campus, and to build a new facility that will flourish in the 21st century. In doing this, Wilshire is following a new trend in American synagogues – one that we might call back-to-roots, or at least back-to-the-city. After decades of expanding further and further into the suburbs and exurbs, American Reform and Conservative Jews are coming back in large numbers to urban areas. A t the very least, widely dispersed Jewish communities are finding that the historic locations of many synagogues in downtowns and early suburbs, are conveniently located at points central to the largest numbers of their congregants. Wilshire Boulevard already has expanded into in the exurbs, with two active campuses. The new project, for which the congregation is raising $100 million, will re-establish the site of the 1920s sanctuary as the heart and soul of the congregation.

To read more about the restoration plans, see recent stories in The Forward Newspaper, and a lengthy piece in The Los Angeles Times.

I have written at length in my book American Synagogues: A Century of Architecture and Jewish Community, about the architecture of the building and its place in the inter-war synagogue building boom that seemed to transform American Judaism, until the trend was overcome and overwhelmed by the Great Depression and World War II. Many large synagogue centers of the 1920s never recovered and were forced to close their doors (at least for Jewish use) by the 1950s. Wilshire Boulevard Temple has managed to survive. Its triumphant and sometimes overwhelming sanctuayr inteiror is intact, though decades of LA pollution have dulled and darkened the once brilliant colors of the murals and rich gilding.

The restoration plans follow the successful c. $25 million restoration of the near-contemporary Temple Emanuel in New York, which has been returned that enormous synaoggue to glory. Simple cleaning now makes the richly decorated ceiling visible from belo, and the whole interior The Wilshire work also follows the completion of recent restoration of the Burbank City Hall and the Griffith Obervatory in the LA area, both of which house mural programs by Jewish artist and filmmaker Hugo Ballin (1879-1956), who created the tremendous narrative wall painting program for Wilshire Temple. Ballin was an admired artist who had painted the decorations in the State Capitol building in Madison Wisconsin in 1912, and had moved to Hollywood where he became a prolific and accomplished film artist, designer and silent film director. After the Wilshire Boulevard Temple commission he returned to painting and created the murals in the Griffith Park observatory and the Los Angeles Times Building (1934), and other works. Brenda Levin, the architect overseeing the Wilshire Temple project, is a longtime temple member who also headed the restoration of the Griffith Observatory, the Autry National Center and the Bradbury Building.

Wilshire Boulevard Temple was designed by Abram M. Edelman, S. Tilden Norton (honorary president of the Temple), and David C. Allison. Edelman was the son of the congregation’s first rabbi, and had designed the congregation’s previous building. Norton was a member of the congregation, and had built the first and second homes of Temple Sinai. The new Wilshire Temple (completed in 1929) was the dream of Rabbi Edgar Magnin who over a career of several decades, managed to meld a Jewish identity for Los Angeles that joined pioneers and Hollywood moguls. Magnin came to B’nai B’rith as assistant rabbi in 1915 and from that time on he championed a new synagogue building. It was the involvement of the Hollywood movie makers after World War I, the same time Magnin became senior rabbi (1919), that allowed the building to be erected and decorated. Mostly displaced New Yorkers with marginal religious interest, the Hollywood producers were attracted to the media-savvy Magnin’s image of a popular modern Judaism. Even his use of Ballin to create a representaiton narrative of Jewish history - which the Warner Brothers funded - domonstated his savvy. The mural, which encircles the sanctuary, can be seen as either an updated an illustrated history scroll, or as a unwinding "film" of the Jewish past.

Rabbi Magnin also foresaw the movement of the city, and especially its Jewish population, westward. In this, the Wilshire Boulevard Temple was both typical and precocious in anticipating the increased suburbanization of the American Jewish life. Because the new synagogue “was beyond the car line” it anticipated the soon near-total Los Angeles dependence on the automobile over the street-car, an urban-suburban transformation that would not affect most Jewish communities until after World War II. It remains to be seen if Rabbi Magin’s CEO-style successor Rabbi Steve Leder is as prescient a planner. If he is, then Los Angeles will have (again) a major and spectacular downtown Jewish center.

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