by Samuel D. Gruber
Architectural historian Richard Funderburke has referred me to the Macon Georgia Living history map webpage for some fine photos of Congregation Beth Israel in Macon, Georgia. Richard is a font of knowledge about Georgia architecture, and I've referred to his work elsewhere on this blog.
I've been to Savannah, but never to Macon and a score of other towns that have or had Jewish communities. Sometime I hope to afford the time and money to make my own march through Georgia and adjacent southern states to more fully investigate the rich Jewish and architectural history of that region.
At present, I'm particularly interested in the persistence of classicism, which in the south has its own particular overlapping and intersecting levels of meaning. Classicism was the style of the elite in the ante-bellum period and we are fortunate to have Beth Elohim in Charleston - literally a touchstone building for American Reform Judaism - as a reminder of how Jews were close to that elite in aspirations if not always in social status. They were not Christians, but they were white. Therefore the widespread use of Greek and Roman classicism beginning around 1900 is only due in part to national trends, since it is also steeped in a strong regional affinity and sense of history. One has to remember that it was a Jew - Commodore Uriah Levy - who undertook to preserve the Jeffersonian (and Palladian) appearance of Monticello. The Palladian form of Monticello - which derives from Rome's Pantheon and is a seen is many types of American civic architecture plays a role in Southern synagogue design, too. I discuss this in brief - but not to the extent that it deserves - in a new article "Arnold W. Brunner and the new classical synagogue in America" that will appear shortly in Jewish History.
In recognition of Richard's link about Macon, I include a few paragraphs from that article - though they are out of their full context, and without their full accompanying end notes.
Already in 1902, two Roman temple style synagogues were erected in Georgia. In Atlanta, the Hebrew Benevolent Congregation dedicated on September 12, 1902, a large new Roman temple style home, designed by Louisville-born W. F. Denny (1875 - 1905), at the corner of South Pryor and Richardson Streets. The Atlanta Constitution called this structure “one of the handsomest church buildings in the city.” Actually, in old photographs the building appears to have been mostly Renaissance in style, but it had a projecting porch facing the street consisting of six large Ionic columns supporting a robust entablature and pediment. Denny also was the architect of the Jefferson County Courthouse in Louisville in 1904, so perhaps it is no surprise that the synagogue looks something like a courthouse. Rabbis from several states attended the dedication. Rabbis were there from both Chattanooga, Tennessee, and Richmond, Virginia, both cities where classical style synagogues were subsequently dedicated in 1904.
Congregation Beth Israel in Macon, Georgia, also built an imposing Roman-temple type building in 1902, designed by local architect Peter E. Dennis. In 1905, a year before Brunner’s Brickbuilder article, three “modern classic” temples had been dedicated in Mississippi alone; in Meridian (demolished 1964), Natchez, and Greenville. A similar 450-seat synagogue in Alexandria, Louisiana opened in 1907.
In Mississippi especially, the motive for the classical designs might have been patriotic. While the forms of the new synagogues recall those of Kahn’s Beth El in Detroit, they closely resemble those of the Pantheon-like Illinois State Monument dedicated at the Vicksburg Battlefield, also in 1906.vi Elsewhere, throughout the country, classicism could be equally tied to civic life and could be seen in the architecture of libraries, courthouses and universities, many of which were quickly adopting the new “White City” classicism.vii
Significant classical style synagogues were erected in Chattanooga (1904), Richmond (1904), Louisville (1906), Kansas City (1907), St. Louis (1908) and New Bern, North Carolina (1908), among many other places. The normality of these buildings and their religiously neutral or ecumenical appearance is seen in a postcard from Louisville that pairs the new Temple Adath Israel with the First Christian Church. The two buildings are virtually indistinguishable, except that the synagogue displays a Decalogue (Ten Commandments) set within its pediment though historian Lee Shai Weissbach has pointed out that this Decalogue was never installed.x Many of the other classical synagogues of the period did include Jewish symbols as pediment decorations, particularly the Star of David, though on most of these buildings symbols were unobtrusive and façade inscriptions were usually in English, not Hebrew. A favorite line used on the façades of Reform Temples is “My house shall be a house of prayer for all peoples (Isaiah 56:7). The quotation, always presented in English, was a proclamation intended as much for the general community as it was for the Jewish congregants. It signified – as did the classical architecture – the attempt at near-ecumenicalism of the Reform Movement. In the 1920s, when the classical style became widespread among Conservative and Orthodox congregations, their buildings always had inscriptions in Hebrew, though sometimes English was also included.
Louisville’s Temple Adath Israel had staged a competition for the design (one of the first competitions for synagogues in America), to which Louisville architect William G. Tachau had submitted an entry. Despite his local Jewish roots, Tachau did not receive the commission, which went to Kenneth McDonald and John Francis Sheblessy, prominent local architects and both Christians. We do not know what specifically the architect and congregation were thinking when they chose the Roman temple-style design. According to Weissbach, “There is no way of determining whether they were aware of recent Greco-Roman synagogue discoveries in Palestine, for example, or how important it was that a member of the congregation, Alfred Joseph, served as senior draftsman on the project.” xii Still, it is easy to agree with Weissbach that, “Adath Israel was attempting to associate itself with the most sophisticated artistic sentiment of the time and the latest developments in American culture. In doing so, the commonwealth’s oldest congregation was declaring its strong sense of self-confidence and its feeling of security as a part of Kentucky society.”Notes:
Richard D. Funderburke, "Willis F. Denny II, Architect: A Brief Career, a Lasting Influence," Preservation Bulletin (January 1995); and “W. F. Denny (1874-1905),” in New Georgia Encyclopedia, http://www.georgiaencyclopedia.org/nge/Article.jsp?id=h-715&hl=y (posted 2002, accessed Nov 14, 2008). According to Funderburke, Denny’s work “reflects the major shifts in design that took place at that time when the picturesque, eclectic forms of the Victorian era gave way to neoclassicism and more historically accurate period revival styles.” For more on the synagogue, see Janice Rothschild Blumberg, As But a Day to Hundred and Twenty, 1867-1987 (Atlanta: Hebrew Benevolent Congregation, 1987), 55 ff.
Steven H. Moffson, “Identity and Assimilation in Synagogue Architecture in Georgia, 1870-1920,” in Alison K. Hoagland and Kenneth A. Breisch, editors, Constructing Image, Identity, and Place: Perspectives in Vernacular Architecture, volume 9, (Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 2003), 151-165.
Lee Shai Weissbach, The Synagogues of Kentucky: Architecture and History (Lexington: The University Press of Kentucky, 1995), 74-75.