Wednesday, December 9, 2009

USA: The Modern Synagogues of Sheldon Leavitt

Architect Sheldon, Leavitt, Portsmouth, Virgnia (2009). Photo: Samuel D. Gruber

USA: The Synagogues of Sheldon Leavitt, P.E., AIA
by Samuel D. Gruber

At a recent lecture that I gave I met architect Sheldon Leavitt, P.E., AIA, who I had previously known only as a name - the architect of record of Temple Oheb Shalom in Baltimore, designed and built 50 years ago (1956-60),and for which Walter Gropius was consulting architect. Leavitt told me something about the circumstances through which Gropius was engaged...and it was instructive for learning the reality of how modern synagogue architecture was sometimes developed - and still is.

Baltimore, Maryland. Temple Oheb Shalom (1956-60), Sheldon Leavitt, architect and Walter Gropius, consulting architect. Photo: Paul Rocheleau.

Temple Oheb Shalom was set to build a new suburban home and Leavitt was engaged, but it was suggested - or requested - that he try to engage someone with a bigger reputation to consult to help fund raising. Aesthetics had nothing to do with it. Leavitt suggested Gropius, with whom he had recently worked on a project and the rest is history. Leavitt visited Cambridge, where Gropius was at Harvard, and the two spent time working on designs. In the end the synagogue features and the functional aspects of the building were probably Leavitt's, since he knew the congregation and had already designed several other synagogues. The distinctive design features, however, especially four great barrel vaults that transverse the main block of the sanctuary, as well as the sanctuary floor that sloped up to the bimah; were Gropius's ideas. After a half century - and when asked on the spot - Leavitt couldn't quite recall. But I hope to interview him sometime soon to get more on this story, and to learn more of the collaborative process, but also more about his work on at least seven other synagogues which he told me about. All of these were built in the 1950s around the time of Oheb Shalom. Since that time his career took him in other directions - especially industrial, commercial, high-rise residential design.

At that time Leavitt was almost as prolific a synagogue builder as Percival Goodman, another young American-born Jewish architect who championed modernism. Leavitt, much more than Goodman, leaned toward a functionalism in his work which demonstrated his training as an engineer. Mr. Leavitt holds a BSCE degree with high honors from the University of Illinois.

Here is a working list of Leavitt synagogues. I have been able to pull together photos for some of them. His Gromley Chesed Synagogue in Portsmouth (1954), which I have not had a chance to visit, appears to be an especially handsome early modern structure.

All need to be visited, described and fully photographed, and I expect this will be done as part of ISJM's modern American synagogue documentation project. Architectural historic Al Willis has already volunteered to document those synagogues in the Virgina Tiderwater region.

Portsmouth, Virginia. Gromley Chesed (1954), Sheldon Leavitt, arch. Photos courtesy of Julian H. Preisler.

Norfolk, Virginia. Temple Israel. Sheldon Leavitt, arch. (1953). Photo: Samuel D. Gruber, 2009.

Cincinnati, Ohio. Former (?) Ohav Sholom Synagogue. Sheldon Leavitt, Arch. (1957).
Photos courtesy of Julian H. Preisler.

Other synagogues are:

Jacksonville Hebrew Congregation, 1955, Jacksonville, NC

Beth Israel Synagogue, (?) 1957, Roanoke, VA

Rodef Sholom Social Temple, 1957, Hampton-Warwick, VA

Adath Jeshurun Synagogue, 1958, Hampton, VA
(subsequently redesigned)

Most of Leavitt's career has been as an accomplished engineer. Indeed, he was a Founding Fellow of the National Academy of Forensic Engineers, and is a Life Fellow of the American Society of Civil Engineers, and Fellow of the Architectural Engineering Institute of the ASCE, He founded Leavitt Associates in 1953, where he is still engaged, and where his son is a partner.

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