USA: Ohavi Zedek Synagogue in Burlington - a Fine Modern Synagogue (and the First Ever Designed by a Woman?)
by Samuel D. Gruber
[revised 22 Dec 2013]
(ISJM) I recently posted my lectures from Ohavi Zedek in Burlington, Vermont, where I spoke about the "Lost Shul Mural" by Lithuanian-Jewish immigrant painter Ben Zion Black. What I didn't report is what a fine modern synagogue the present-day Ohavi Zedek is.
I attended Shabbat services in the sanctuary where I later lectured, so I got to see and feel the space used both for its primary purpose - communal worship - and for my more educational and entertaining lectures. In every way I was impressed by the simplicity and intimacy of the space and its natural materials finely worked in clear and efficient design. The morning light warmed the congregants, and the service was a bright and joyful gathering, enhanced by the closely contained boxlike space.
The synagogue, designed by Freeman French Freeman (FFF) and dedicated in 1952, exemplifies many of the best characteristics of what I consider the second phase of post-war American modernism. Ohavi Zedek exhibits a fusion of European rationalism and American vernacular form and feeling. For one thing, unlike so many modern synagogues, this one has traditional roofs with sloping sides - very sensible for Vermont's snowy weather (a perhaps a nod to the gable feront of the congregation's previous home). The gable fronted entrance that faces the street fits in size and style with much of the residential architecture on the street. The synagogue is one of only a handful of synagogues in the United States and in the world - designed by a woman. Ruth Reynolds Freeman, was a prominent modernist in charge of design at FFF. The synagogue resembles some schools of the period and this is not surprising since Ruth Freeman was also in charge of the FFFs work at the University of Vermont and she oversaw the firm's design of many Vermont public schools (on the firm, see more below).
Ohavi Zedek Synagogue has an open suburban feel to it, but unlike so many of its contemporaries, this building was erected within walking distance of its predecessor, a 1885 red brick vernacular building with Gothic details - notably pointed windows. That synagogue, one of the best preserved Eastern European immigrant synagogues, is still in use as an Orthodox shul, serving the small Ahavath Gerim congregation. The old synagogue is in the heart of Burlington's Little Jerusalem, while the new building is only a short distance away. The new sanctuary is entirely different in style, but still captures some of the haimish feel of the older shul.
The bimah is a raised platform set in a recessed niche. At the rear of the sanctuary is a raised choir loft, screened by an open work front of vertical wood slats. The space is now used for storage of part of the synagogue archives. The wall under the loft can open into the adjacent social hall to provided extra space for overflow crowds, though ti seems like the view form the rear would be like looking under a bridge. The sanctuary gets good bright daylight from high clerestory windows of glass etched with the symbols representing the twelve tribes of Israel. These were made expressly for the build by artist Ben Stein. More striking is to look up and see the tops of trees almost brushing the building (unfortunately my pictures of the sanctuary were taken a night, so the trees are not visible). A similar effect was recently achieved in the Jewish Reconstructionist Congregation in Evanston, Illinois (also designed by a woman) though there the sanctuary is set on the building's third floor - close to the treetops.
According to the website of the University of Vermont Libraries, Freeman French Freeman was founded in Burlington in 1937 as the first architectural firm in Vermont by Ruth (Reynolds) and Bill Freeman and John French. Ruth Freeman (1913-1969), a graduate of Cornell, was the first female architect in the state and a leader modernism. William ran the business; Ruth oversaw design; and John supervised project specifications. Much of the modern architecture in Vermont was designed by the firm, which remains active today, with a new generation of architects. A list of the firm's buildings through the early 1960s can be found here. FFF's St. Mark's Church, built in 1941, was one of the first modern style religious buildings erected in America, and its configuration presages many of the design innovations in post-Vatican II Catholic churches of the 1960 ( I regret that I only learned of this building after my visit. I will surely see it when I return to Burlington). For more on the role of the firm in Vermont's architectural history, and on the work of Ruth Freeman see the Survey of International Style Architecture in Vermont 1937 - ca. 1975.