Saturday, July 21, 2012

Albert Kahn's Other Synagogue: Shaaray Zedek

Albert Kahn's Other Synagogue: Shaaray Zedek
by Samuel D. Gruber

(ISJM) When I was recently in Detroit I made it a point to visit some of the many old former synagogues in the city. My friend photographer Laszlo Regos, who has made so many beautiful photographs of synagogues, joined me on this little expedition and I hope that he'll have the opportunity to return to some of these sites to photograph them more fully.

One goal was to see architect Albert Kahn's "other" synagogue - his third and last (that I know of) Detroit synagogue, built in a Byzantine style for Congregation Shaaray Zedek in 1931-32.

I've written about Albert Kahn on several occasions, including about his two well-known and influential Classical-style synagogues built for Temple Beth El on Woodward Avenue in 1903 and 1922, and about some of his other many buildings that helped shape Detroit, including the General Motors Buildings and the Fischer Building.

Detroit, MI.  Albert Kahn's classical-style synagogues. Temple Beth El (1903 as built; (middle) Former Temple Beth El (1903) today; (bottom) former Temple Beth El (1922).

As I wrote a few years ago in The Forward:
"....he designed his first Temple Beth El (now transformed into a theater at Wayne State University), a small, domed classical building modeled in a general way on the Pantheon. Indeed, in civic circles it was Classical design that was considered modern in its day. In 1904, as a sign of its progressiveness, Temple Beth El abandoned its long-held practice of selling and assigning seats, in favor of the more egalitarian practice of free seating. The rabbi declared, “In God’s house, all must be equal.”
The Fisher Building and the GM Building created a new civic center for Detroit, on Woodward Avenue, three miles from the old downtown. In 1922, close to this civic ensemble, Kahn designed his second Temple Beth El — now Lighthouse Cathedral — with its impressively wide facade of a giant columnar order. The building was an homage to his old friend, Henry Bacon (the two had traveled together in Europe as young men). Bacon’s design for the Lincoln Memorial had been accepted for Washington in 1912, but in 1922 it was just being completed. The new synagogue was a near-last gasp for the Classical-style synagogue that had been almost de rigueur for Reform congregations in the first decades of the 20th century.
Both Beth El synagogues are symbolic of Kahn’s art and his Judaism. Kahn was not ashamed of being a Jew (especially not in the 1920s, when his foremost patron, Henry Ford, disseminated the “Protocols of the Elders of Zion”), and he was proud to see Judaism as a mainstay of civic virtue and cultural enlightenment."
I'm interested in the 1932 Shaaray Zedek synagogue for at least six reasons:

1) it is a major work by Albert Kahn, one of America's leading (Jewish) architects, and architect of synagogues,

The congregation had begun discussion of erecting a new and larger synagogue in 1922 when Shaaray Zedek was growing and money was plentiful.  The decision to purchase a lot was made in 1925, and Kahn, the most famous Detroit architect, was engaged by that time.  Excavation on the site began in 1927.  According to congregation historians Eli Grad and Bette Roth, "There was a consensus that the new sanctuary should seat twenty-five hundred to three thousand, and that the synagogue should include a smaller sanctuary seating five hundred, a chapel for daily services seating one hundred, a hall for meetings and entertainment with a capacity of one thousand, a dining room for twelve hundred, a gymnasium, sixteen classrooms, a library, offices, and facilities for the Men's Club and Sisterhood."  In other words, a synagogue center of enormous size.  Kahn presented designs to be built for $750,000.  But with the delays, and then the onset of the Great Depression, the project was scaled back by a third. It is an important example (and one of the last) of the mature Byzantine style popular for synagogues in the 1920s and 1930s.

Kahn and the congregation chose the Byzantine style, which had grown in popularity among Jews in America and Europe since the First World War, and was used by both Reform and Conservative Jews for synagogue design.  The Byzantine style was distinctive and for some it recalled the architecture of the Middle East, and so could be claimed (erroneously) to be authentically Jewish.  The style was usually expressed in two ways - not always combined.  First, designers of Byzantine-style synagogues often experimented with new, geometrically varied massing, especially versions of centrally planned polygonal spaces.  Secondly, architects and artists invented a new decorative vocabulary inspired by Byzantine art.  Most of this was geometric or vegetal, though there were figures, too.

Chicago Architect William Tachau experimented with several plan types in his many synagogue designs.  In 1928, just a year before the Stock Market Crash and the onset of the Great Depression put a halt to all new synagogue construction, he described, somewhat critically, the process that created the more central plan for the synagogue sanctuary:  “Recently a number of plans have been developed in circular, elliptical and polygonal forms, which again owe their inspiration to Byzantine influence.  To obtain the imposing effect that such designs require, the dome must be of a lofty character and so pretentious a venture can be only accomplished at great cost; and in many instances such heights result in poor acoustics – a very serious defect in an auditorium” (Tachau, “The Architecture of the Synagogue,” Architecture (September 1928), 143). 

Interestingly, Kahn used the Byzantine style to embellish an otherwise traditional synagogue.  The special massing created by the two prominent symmetrically placed tower blocks at each end of the façade, however, derive as much from 19th century two-towered synagogues derive, as from Byzantine designs.  In his two synagogues for Beth El he produced a domed central plan for the first and a "broad house" design for the second, where one entered on the wide side of the rectangular block, and the seats and a balcony were arrayed widely in the front of the bimah.  But at Shaaray Zedek, the main entrance was on the short side of the rectangular (through three church-like portals), as was traditional for many synagogues and most churches.

The decoration of the synagogue, especially the menorahs reliefs on the facade, were inspired by Byzantine art, including decorations found on recently excavated synagogues in the Holy Land.

3) it is one of only a handful of impressive synagogues constructed in the depths of the Great Depression

 "The Chicago Blvd Temple Takes Shape" from E. Grad and B. Roth, Congregation Shaaray Zedek 5622-5742 / 1861-1981 (Southfield, MI: Congregation Shaaray Zedek, 1982) 

Though planned before the 1929 Crash and the onset of the Great Depression, the congregation decided to proceed despite the terrific economic situation.  Membership declined, sustained members cut back contributions, and the entire community struggled to make ends meet at home and at the synagogue.  The great and expensive Temple Emanuel in New York was just nearing completion at the time of the crash.  The money was spent, however,  though it was hard to meet expenses during the next decade.  Only in Hartford, Connecticut, did Congregation Beth Israel manage to plan and build an impressive Byzantine-style synagogue in the mid-1930s.  Because of the strength of the insurance industry Hartford was one of the least hit major cities in the Depression era.

4) it is a fine example of a the sustained reuse of a synagogue building for Christian worship, where the church use has now been considerably longer than the original synagogue use 

Like so many urban synagogues across America, Kahn's Shaaray Zedek was sold to a church when the congregation moved to the suburbs in the 1960's.  Since March 1963, Greater Bethlehem Temple has made its home in the building and sustained it longer than Shaaray Zedek. Next year will mark the church's half century in the building.

5) Shaaray Zedek has a long history of erecting, occupying and then leaving monumental synagogue buildings, the process I have dubbed " the continuing exodus."

I have written about the continuing exodus in other cities, most recently in an essay (read it here) for the exhibition Silent Witnesses: Migration Stories Through Synagogues Transformed, Rebuilt or Abandoned (Farmington Hills, MI, 2012).  The process was pronounced in Detroit, too,  especially for the oldest congregation Temple Beth El and Congregation Shaaray Zedek.  Shaaray Zedek has been housed in a series of notable buildings including, since 1963, the enormous and sculptural impressive suburban complex designed by Percival Goodman with Albert Kahn Associates.

6) when construction was first proposed it met with considerable public opposition, a good part of which was anti-Semitic.

There is a long history of opposition to the erection of synagogues in all types of American neighborhoods - behavior that is now closely paralleled by popular opposition and legal challenges to the erection of mosques. In the 18th century the building site for Congregation Mikveh Israel was moved when members of the Dutch Reform Church protested that the Jewish house of worship would be too close to their church.  Today, most challenges to synagogues are against Orthodox congregations which establish synagogues in houses zoned for residential use.  In 1925 in Detroit, when it was announced that Shaaray Zedek would buy land at Chicago Blvd and Lawton from the Catholic Diocese of Detroit (!) neighborhood property owners filed a lawsuit - the first of several.  These cases which were defended by William Friedman, went all the way to the Supreme Court and helped to form the basis of religious freedom laws today.  Some of the opposition was probably legitimate, as home owners feared that the synagogue would bring traffic to the neighborhood, and perhaps affect property values.  Underlying the opposition, however, was also Antisemitism, which greatly escalated in the 1920's.

For more on the history of Congregation Shaaray Zedek and Albert Kahn see:

Goldman, Norma, 1993. "Albert Kahn: Architect, Artist, Humanist," Michigan Jewish History, 34, 2-16.

Grad, Eli and Roth, Bette. Congregation Shaaray Zedek 5622-5742 / 1861-1981 (Southfield, MI: Congregation Shaaray Zedek, 1982) 

Gruber, Samuel D., 2009. “The Rabbi's Son Who Built Detroit, The Other Kahn: Architect, The Forward (January 23, 2009).

No comments: