Thursday, December 30, 2010

USA: Boston's Ohabei Shalom's Byzantine Grandeur

Boston (Brookline), MA. Temple Ohabei Shalom (1922-28). Photo: Samuel D. Gruber, 2010.

Boston (Brookline), MA. Temple Ohabei Shalom, 11 Union Park St (synagogue 1887-mid-1920s). American Jewish Historical Society as reproduced in The Jews of Boston, p 183.

USA: Boston's Ohabei Shalom's Byzantine Grandeur
by Samuel D. Gruber



I was in Boston last week for the Association of Jewish Studies meeting, and stayed in Brookline with a friend. Riding the Green Line T I had to hop off two stops early to take some photos of the grand domed Temple Ohabei Shalom (OS), at the corner of Beacon and Kent Streets. Dedicated in 1928, the synagogue was Boston's entry into the national Byzantine synagogue sweepstakes of the 1920s, where Boston set to compete with similar Byzantine-style buildings in Newark, NJ; Chicago (Temple Isaiah), IL; Portland, OR and elsewhere. A free interpretation of the style was first successfully used for synagogue architecture in Sofia, Bulgaria in the early 1900s, and was soon adapted by American architects.


Sofia, Bulgaria. Great Synagogue. Friedrich Gruenanger (1856-1929), architect (1905-10). This was the first major synagogue inspired in part by Hagia Sofia and other Byzantine buildings, but it also continues use of Islamic motifs. In Bulgaria (unlike Boston) Muslim and Byzantine styles are part of the local heritage. Photo: Samuel D. Gruber.

Portland, Oregon. Temple Beth Israel, Morris H. Whitehouse & Herman Brookman, architects (1923). In the building the Byzantine style is influenced by Art Deco motifs. Photo: from postcard.

Chicago, Illinois. Temple Isaiah, Alfred S. Alschuler, Architect (1924). This is one the most fully realzied Byzantine style synagogues, but it is more influenced by San Vitale in Ravenna than Hagia Sofia in Istanbul. Photo: Samuel D. Gruber.

Newark, NJ. Congregation B'nai Jeshurun (now Hopewell Baptist Church), Albert Gottleib, arch (1915). One of the earliest American examples of the Byzantine style. Photo: Samuel D. Gruber.

As David Kaufman has written in his essential article "Temples in the American Athens: A History of Synagogues in Boston," in Sarna et al, eds, The Jewish of Boston (1995, 2005), OS was also an fine example of the era's Synagogue-Center movement, where urban architectural monumentality was joined to the more many more mundane activities of sustaining a Jewish religious community. OS, Boston's oldest congregation (founded 1842) felt the need to position itself as a leader in architecture as well as communal education and programming.

The building, designed by Clarance Blackall is one of many contemporary designs that derive from Istanbul's 6th century Hagia Sofia in the latest and last serious bout of Jewish architectural historicism. Blacknell had previously designed Congregation Adath Israel in 1907. The popular Classical style of the first decade of the century had, if anything, become too ubiquitous after World War I, and congregation strove for new ways to establish Jewish and congregational identity in the American world of religious and denomination competition. In Chicago, architect Alfred Alschuler first made the claim that the Byzantine style directly referenced ancient newly excavated synagogues of the 4th-8th century, thereby establishing legitimacy and precedent for the style, but it remains unknown whether anyone really believed this. Architecturally, the Byzantine style as adapted for synagogues allowed the prominent incorporation of a domed sanctuary space and its exterior expression, an architectural and communal element that had been evolving dressed in other styles since the 1890s. The domed interior space gave a great sense of communal unity, and usually also provided better acoustics and sight lines.

David Kaufman quotes congregation Rabbi Samuel J. Abrams remarks at a 1922 find raising banquet for the project:

"what is this New Temple Ohabei Shalom? Let me tell you at least what we shall strive to make it - a monument of the standing of the Jews of this metropolis of the 20th century! more than that; it is to be a witness to the fact that though we have risen in wealth and power, and though we yield to none of our fellow-citizens in love of country, we have not forgotten the rock whence we were hewn. in its artistic completeness, it is to be an offering recoding for years, or - may God grant - for centuries to come, at once the prosperity and the gratitude which are ours in being privileged to be counted among those who served this holy cause."

Boston (Brookline), MA. Temple Ohabei Shalom presentation drawing, ca. 1922.
Reproduced in The Jews of Boston, p 204.

Blackall's original design called for a tall campanile-like tower to be set at the corner of the building, which would have been visible from afar, and also would have linked the building to the previous Ohabei Shalom (at 11 Union Park Street, now a Greek Orthodox church) which had a corner tower, and to the many Boston churches which employed this device of architectural advertising in the tightly built urban environment. The arrangement is described ca. 1925 as: "The dome is about ninety feet high and the tower is one hundred and seventy to the top of its Menorah. The tower, which has a lantern top, will provide a most distinguishing landmark on the long perspective of Beacon street. The lantern has a gilded patterned top surmounted by the Menorah and will have a large light source to stream from its arcaded windows." This tower is very different from the slender minaret-like tower Altschuler used at Temple Isaiah in Chicago, which actually masks a chimney.

In the end the Ohabei Shalom tower was not built, which actually better emphasizes the geometrical integrity of the synagogue design. The dome drum windows were also changed, and it was until a recent renovation of the building that a towering menorah was installed, now atop the dome replacing an earlier simple Star of David. There is rich and intricate brick, carved stone and metalwork detailing throughout the building. My favorite element are the bronze shofars sculpted as door handles on the entrance doors.

Boston (Brookline), MA. Temple Ohabei Shalom. Shofar shaped door handles. Photo: Samuel D. Gruber, 2010.

The interior is also impressive, and over the past two decades the sanctuary has been restored to it original appearance. I'll report more on that space when I have a longer time to visit.


Even before the sanctuary was built the congregation erected an adjacent school, activities and office building that still serves these functions. It was normal for synagogue centers at the time to be built in phases - and remains so today. I can think of several instances where congregations built their school buildings first with flexible space to be used for worship as well, and then never went to build their planned sanctuaries. The best known instance of this is Union Temple in Brooklyn. Ohabei Shalom's school wing is now as often reached by car as by public transport or on foot, so an ample parking lot is in the rear, and a new modern style entrance has been created in the back of the building - which now serves as the de facto front.

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