Sunday, October 4, 2009

USA: ISJM to Survey Post-World War II American Synagogues

Syracuse, NY. Former Temple Beth El, built in the 1960s. Photos taken shortly before closure and sale to a church in 2007. The building has never been documented, but I was able to photograph it top to bottom before it was cleared of furniture and Judaica fitting. Photos: Samuel D. Gruber/ISJM

USA: ISJM to Survey Post-World War II American Synagogues
by Samuel D. Gruber (President, ISJM)

The International Survey of Jewish Monuments (ISJM) is launching a new documentation initiative aimed at gathering information about the architecture, art and condition of modern American synagogues built in the second half of the 20th century. The emphasis of the survey will be on buildings designed and erected between 1945 and 1975 as these are most at risk.

Research by ISJM members has shown that many of these buildings - even when designed by master architects - are poorly documented, and often threatened with radical alteration or complete demolition due to specific congregational factors and larger demographics shifts. Synagogues built in the 1950s and 1960s are regularly altered, expanded, sold and demolished due to expanding congregations, new liturgical and congregational expectations, changing tastes in style, and sometime high cost of maintaining deteriorated materials.

In the past decade alone synagogues designed by such as noted architects including Pietro Belluschi, Sidney Eisenshtat, Harrison & Abramovitz, Fritz Nathan, Percival Goodman. Walter Gropius, Philip Johnson, Louis Kahn, Kivett & Myers, Eric Mendelsohn and Werner Seligmann have been significantly altered and in some cases even demolished. Scores of synagogues by lesser known local architects, such as Beth El in Syracusee pictured above, have shared this fate. Many others, like Adat Israel i Newport News, Va (below) are at risk.

Change is an inevitable process and ISJM's project is not intended to dictate how a congregation should use its property. The primary purpose of the survey is documentation, but documentation can lead to more informed decisions about future use. Also, since many of these buildings are now eligible or will soon be eligible for National Register listing, ISJM will encourage and assist congregations in this process when appropriate. We are pleased to note, for instance, that the NY Landmarks Conservancy has recently assisted the Kingsway Jewish Center in Brooklyn with NR nomination. Based on past success, it is hoped that interest by architectural historians and others through ISJM will also stimulate more interest in their buildings among congregants and also with local architecture and preservation organizations.

Newport, News, Virginia. Adat Israel is for sale. On a recent visit I was able to photograph the exterior, but could not get inside. One interesting feature is the room with windows to the right of the entrance in the photo immediately above. The room has no roof - it contains a permanent sukkah frame. Photos: Samuel D. Gruber/ISJM Sept 2009.

Plans call for an organizing committee of volunteers for this project, each to be responsible for collating inventories and organizing documentation based on location. Volunteers in New York, Florida, Illinois and Minnesota have already responded.

ISJM also welcomes informative and learned discussion on related issues of architects, patronage, planning, design, materials, construction, use and re-use of modern synagogues and all modern religious buildings. ISJM will aslo assist members with organizing lectures, seminars and conerence sessions on these topics.

With the exception of a few iconic buildings by a few noted architects (i.e. Wright's Unity Temple and Beth Sholom Synagogue; Kahn's First Unitarian Church and unbuilt Mikveh Israel Synagogue; Belluschi's sacred spaces), religious architecture in American mostly receives short shrift in the literature of architectural history.

If you are interested in participating as an organizer, documentarian, sponsor or organizational partner please contact me directly at

ISJM is especially eager to hear from architects and builders (or their descendents) to learn about synagogues they have designed, and to discuss with them the eventual disposition of their papers, drawings and other documentation concerning such projects.

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