Saturday, March 26, 2011

USA: Baytown, Texas Celebrates Synagogue Restoration

Baytown, Texas. K'nesseth Israel. Lenard Gebart, arch. (1930). Exterior.

USA: Baytown, Texas Celebrates Synagogue Restoration
by Samuel D. Gruber

(ISJM) Today (March 27, 2011), residents of Baytown, Texas are celebrating the restoration of their eighty-year old synagogue - Congregation K'nesseth Israel. The building was designed by Houston architect Lenard Gabert in 1930, and after suffering limited damage in the destructive Hurricane Ike of 2008, has now been repaired and restored. The community center was much more heavily damaged by the storm, and that, too, has been repaired and renamed the Jewish Community Center.

Baytown resulted as a consolidation of Goose Creek, Pelly and Baytown in 1948. It is located at the eastern end of Harris County, 22 miles from Houston, and Jews first settled in Goose Creek after 1915 mostly to provide retail and commercial services to the booming oil and gas facilities. This is hardly a unique situation in the Jewish world. Jewish merchants flocked to Gold rush towns in the 19th century, and they involved themselves in service industires for the oil and gas business in the 20th. I'm reminded of how Jewish retailers moved to Drohobych (now Ukraine), when oil was discovered there in the mid-19th century. My grandfather Joseph Moskowitz was a surveyor the oil companies, especially in the interwar period.

My uncles Mose and Joe Sumner moved to Goose Creek in 1922 from Brenham, Texas and opened a store. Until his death in 1966 Mose was a stalwart of the congregation in Goose Creek, which he helped found in the early 1920s.

Architect Gabert was among the first successful Jewish architects in Texas and K'nesseth Israel was the first of several synagogues he designed. In the 1950s he designed Temple Israel in Schulenberg and in 1957 Shearith Israel in Wharton. The brick building has been listed as a Texas Historical Landmark since 1992. Gabert's designed many highly regarded Art Deco buildings in the Houston area.

K'neseseth Israel has been described as conveying "a hint of the exotic." This is mostly the effect of the yellow-brick facade that rises to an arched roof line without break, fully representing the barrel vault roof. This design is, in fact, a fairly common one for synagogues in the late 1920s. Earlier variants can be seen in B'nai Jeshurun in New York City (1918) and the Breed Street Shul in Los Angeles (1923). Of these K'nesseth Israel is by far the simplest and most streamlined -pointing the way to modernist synagogues of the post-World War II period (and I can't recall another straight-forward barrel vaulted ceiling in an American synagogue until Louis Goodman's decidedly retro-Temple Israel in Greenfield, Massachusetts completed in 1991.

The interior is more traditional. The Ark is of a Palladian design, not uncommon in many Neo-Classical synagogues of the previous three decades.

Baytown, Texas. K'nesseth Israel. Lenard Gebart, arch (1930). Interior.

Los Angeles, California. Breed Street Shul, Abram Edelman, arch. (1923). The flat brick facade with a large arched roof line is an antecedent for Baytown. Photo: Samuel Gruber.

Greenfield , Massachusetts. Temple Israel, Louis Goodman, arch. (1991). The New England meeting hall style synagogue has an impressive and elegant wooden barrel vault ceiling. Photo: Paul Rocheleau.

For more on Baytown's Jewish history see Hollace Ava Weiner and Lauraine Miller, "Little Synagogues Across Texas," in Lone Stars of David: The Jewish of Texas (Waltham, Mass.: Brandeis Univ. Press, 2007), 200-202.

1 comment:

vy said...

If Baytown was unique, your uncles helped make it so. My father assumed the Baytown pulpit to enable his brother, Rabbi Samuel Schwartz, an emigrant from England, to find employment. My father was given the job by your uncles on just that basis, temporarily, and he upset his own life temporarily, just to help another Jew. Rabbi Samuel Schwartz later moved to Houston. I believe I have pictures of the interior sanctuary.

Thank you for giving Baytown its due, our own fort Sumner.