by Samuel D. Gruber
Architectural League of New York Annual Exhibition Catalog (1897)
When I see advertisements in old architecture catalogs and magazines ads touting recently constructed synagogues, I often wonder about the long disconnect between synagogue architecture and its acknowledgment by architectural historians. Until quite recently synagogue architecture was virtually absent from any mainstream teaching and writing in the field.
In years of study in the 1970s and 1980s at prestigious universities I remember only encountering one or two synagogues in the curricula of dozenS of art and architecture classes. These included, of course, the ancient synagogue at Dura-Europos and Frank Lloyd Wright's Beth Sholom synagogue in Elkins Park, Pennsylvania. And even those buildings got short shrift. Why was this? Is it because synagogue architecture did not measure up in the architectural canon? Or does this - or did it - reflect an inherent bias against synagogues - in the teaching of architectural history?
The truth probably lies somewhere in between. There are plenty of bad - or just derivative - synagogues. But there have been many innovative and beautiful synagogue designs, often created by the leading architects of the time. Often, it seems, architects have been less reluctant to take on synagogue work than critics and historians have been willing to write about those works. Leading architects such as William Strickland and Gottfried Semper in the 19th century, and scores of important 20th century architects designed synagogues. But through the early 1990s there were only a few books - in any language - written on the topic of synagogue architecture (this has now changed). A particularly galling example to me of neglect is the failure to mention Gottfried Semper's influential Dresden synagogue in the long entry on the architect in the Macmillan Encyclopedia of Architects - no mention even in the appended list of the architect's works! There are many other such examples of neglect.
What now surprises me is that synagogue architecture was hardly unknown. It was not a secret guarded by the Jewish community, or somehow shunned by embarrassed architects. Important new synagogue buildings were often illustrated in popular magazines and newspapers in the 19th century. By the 20th century they begin to appear with some regularity in building ads in the trade magazines. These are ads aimed at professionals, and represented architects, engineers, contractors and material suppliers boasting of their accomplishments in the search for new work.
Houston, Texas. Former Beth Israel, Joseph Finger, arch (1932). Ad from Pencil Points (Feb. 1933)